Watching dueling online and social media narratives can be quite a disorienting experience. Who is right? What are the facts? Does this story/anecdote/experience reflect and influence broader patterns in society?
It is this last question that interests me as a sociologist who has studied social network site use among emerging adults. How much does online activity reflect daily life among all Americans or people around the world? How much influence does online activity exert?
It is not necessarily reflective of everyone and their experiences. For example, a small segment of users can create a lot of content and drive traffic. Of those who use social media, not everyone engages much, and others do not use social media at all or use other platforms. What happens online is not always generalizable to broader social activity.
Yet, the actors and actions online can have a powerful influence in both the online and offline world. The way material is presented in social media and the Internet – or in any form of media – can influence beliefs and behaviors. Even if many people are not aware of something online or do not find it themselves, it can be important for those who make decisions or those who are following a particular conversation.
This is another reason that we should consider the online and offline realms as overlapping spheres, not separate worlds. Yes, there are some actors who may act very differently online than offline. Yet, even these behaviors are joined together within an individual who is operating in both realms. Online discussions and trends find their way to the offline world as offline activity gets picked up online. Money, power, influence, and beliefs pass back and through the two realms.
Recognizing this does not make it easier to reconcile competing online narratives. But, it does highlight how these are not just meaningless online discussions; they are linked to offline patterns.
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