Personal Connections in the Digital Age explores how humans have reacted to the growth of digital media and how it has impacted relationships, communities, and societies. Baym argues that early predictions of an emotionless, socially isolating digital environment are false. Humans have found ways to make the internet a more personal and humanized environment by creating specific language cues and communities. Yet, she still questions “how can we be present, yet also absent” (3). One specific example I found particularly interesting was the relationship between social media and political engagement. Critics of social media believe that it will decrease civic engagement or at least cause slactivism.
However, real-life examples and academic work discredit that notion. The book provides two examples, the Arab spring and occupy wall street, as political periods that heavily relied on social media to spread their message and coordination of their activities.
Social media is certainly useful for uprisings, protests, and emergencies to quickly disseminate information. However, social media was also a critical factor in the 2016 U.S. election. Social media will only become more important to politics. It is a useful tool for any democracy, and I would argue that it enhances it.
Political Engagement at LSU
In my 7001 Research Methods course last semester, my research group conducted a survey looking at LSU students’ use of social media and political engagement. College students are an important population segment their voting behaviors significantly impact elections. The study aimed to address rising concerns about college student’s disengagement in politics due to increased time spent on social media. However, we took the opposite stance because we hypothesized that it could be a useful tool in connecting with college students. 91.4% (n = 158) of respondents reported using social media for news. A regression analysis suggested that increased social media use correlated with increased political engagement.
Baym also points out that we want to say social media is either good or bad, but she suggests that binary perspective limits our understanding of how people are actually using social media. Approaching social media studies without such an assumption could benefit scholarly research as a whole. She accurately names this “the myth of cyberspace.”
Further research on political engagement
Further research is certainly necessary. Surveys are useful, but it is often difficult to measure actual political engagement. Reliance on reported political engagement may result in a higher level than in reality as respondents tend to overreport activities they perceive as virtuous.
The online atmosphere has changed dramatically, and humans have developed an online way of doing things that allow for greater interpersonal connections than ever imagined at its inception. Academia will have to adapt quickly to keep up with future changes in online media use.
Early critics also believed that the internet would be a disconnected space from the users’ reality. However, Baym argues the opposite, that one cannot understand the internet without assuming it is somehow related to their real lives. Of course, people do use false identities, or catfish others online, but that is an exception (176). For the majority of people, their online behavior and relationships often have real-life consequences. Therefore, future media scholarship must understand this relationship. Interviews and qualitative analyses are highly useful, such as the ethnographic research done by danah boyd. The internet may be a different space, but it is still part of reality, and therefore cannot be studied independently of it.