The emergence of digital media and its impacts on the community has attracted enormous research in contemporary society. While many people claim that digital media has disrupted communities by eliminating the face-to-face contact between members of a community, to others, it has come at the right moment in terms of reflecting the dynamics of the society. By eliminating the restrictions of space and time, digital media has promoted community continuity, despite the geographical restrictions that are brought by globalization as people travel across the world for different reasons. This paper addresses both sides of the argument on whether digital media promotes or disrupts the community.
Introduction to Digital Media
In the 21st century, technology has revolutionized the way people live and/or undertake their day-to-day activities. Advances in technology led to the emergence of digital media, which has redefined communication and information sharing in the world. According to Elliot and Urry (2010), digital media is defined as digitized information that is created, transmitted, and stored in the internet platform, computer networks, or in any other computer-readable format. Such information can include text, audio, graphics, or videos. Currently, digital media plays an important role in virtually all areas of communication and information sharing, ranging from online and digital newspapers, online TV channels, online radio channels, Social Media Networks (SMNs), including text, photos, and video sharing among many other areas of applications (Chen, 2012). To many people, it is difficult to imagine a world without digital media. In line with this popularity of digital media, many questions have been raised regarding its impact on the social fabric, especially in terms of the conception of community and society in the 21st century. This paper seeks to discuss whether digital media promotes or disrupts communities. If it interferes with the community, the paper will specify how the disruption occurs.
The Use of Digital Media in the Contemporary Community
Human beings are social beings. Communication features greatly in this definition. Without communication or sharing of information, the world would hardly be inhabitable. Societies would collapse, families would be no more, and that communities would cease to exist. All people in the world are members of a given community. Various reasons make one a valid member of the given community (Kendall, 2011). By definition, Tonnies (2005) defines a community as a group of people who interact with each other through shared interests. For instance, a community can share a locality, an interest such as a game, or goals, among many other factors that bring people together. It is worth noting that the term ‘community’ elicits different conceptions from different people. The concept has many definitions. However, regardless of the definition, a common strand is evident, and that is ‘communication.’ No community can sustain itself without interaction and communication between its members (Urry, 2004). In the quest for maintaining interactions between members of a given community, various mediums through which communication is shared have evolved immensely. From the ancient use of messengers, then to the telephone, telegram, print media, radio, TV, and currently the internet, populations have strived to share information with each other in different ways with the main aim of staying in touch and sustaining the relationships that bind them together as a community.
The internet and computer technology has ushered a new era of society that is referred to as the information age where people can communicate over the internet fast. The new information age is synonymous with the use of digital media, where different platforms are available (Baym, 2011). Of these mediums, social media networks have played a major role in relating platforms through which people can share their daily lives. Currently, different social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Plus, and Instagram, among many others, have come up where people can easily share photos, texts, videos, and news almost instantaneous and with hundreds of other members through various platforms.
The digital media has become much adopted in modern society that a new conception of community, referred to as ‘virtual community,’ has emerged. Virtual community indicates a group of people who interact, share information through the internet and computer devices but do not meet physically in this communication process (Kendall, 2011). These virtual communities exist through the aforementioned ‘social network platforms.’ These networks allow people in different geographical locations to communicate easily and to link up with friends and their acquaintances. They create a large network of virtual communities. While these classes may be termed as communities, many critics point out that they are just ‘networks’ that do not qualify to be named communities (Allwood & Schroeder, 2000). In fact, they assert that the emergence of these virtual communities is a threat to the historically bounded communities that were present before the emergence of the internet and social network sites. Supporters of social networks and their relevance in the society claim that through digital media, people can create linkages, virtually meet with numerous connections of people who share the same or diverse interests over the internet, follow far-away friends, and/or share information among other issues that unite them as a community.
How Digital Media Disrupts Communities
With its distinctive features, digital media has brought communities to an exceedingly interrelated stage that shakes and tests human interaction as it was conceptualized in the traditional sense. The internet and computer technologies mean that the restrictions of space and time have been eliminated and that information sharing is no longer a privilege of few and powerful institutions such as religious institutions, governments, or major media houses. Every individual can create information and disseminate it instantaneously to a wide range of audiences across large geographical regions, as well as to a wider group of culturally different audiences (Koc, 2006). Firstly, as previously discussed, communication plays an important role in creating the identity of members of a given community. However, digital media has greatly affected how people understand each other in the process of communication. Communication is a mix of different factors, such as tones, body language, and culturally distinct communication processes that require face-to-face communication (Kendall, 2011).
The fact that digital media has eliminated the need for the physical presence of parties to communicate can affect a community. Before the era of digital media, traditions and innovations were dynamically synchronized; that is, they evolved together. However, the speed and impact of digital media have made it impossible for traditional values to grow at the pace at which new cultural values are being produced by the media. This situation leads to the creation of a cutoff in a community, thus making it complex for people across cohorts and among the same group in a given civilization to comprehend or converse efficiently with each other.
Another disruption of the new media is evident in the fact that it leads to communication gaps between culturally and ethnically different groups. It is worth noting that communities do not exist in isolation. Interaction with other communities is an important part of their existence (Urry, 2004). In this interaction process, communication is an important process of maintaining relations between two or more communities. In the communication process between two communities, each community’s unique cultural grammar, cultural theme, or cultural map plays an important role in bringing communication dialogue and interactions into context. However, digital media has eroded these important characteristics in communities, thus leading to new patterns that make interaction and communication difficult (Chen, 2012). However, the fast and highly dynamic nature of digital media works as a hindrance to this process since it leads to high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty that communities have difficulty while catching up, hence resulting in a breakdown of communicative linkages between diverse societies.
For communities to exist smoothly, conflict, cooperation, and control play prominent roles in the interaction of members. Of great threat to the wellbeing and continuity to a community is conflict. Conflict is a reality of any social grouping. Depending on how it is handled, it can destroy or make a community. According to Kendall (2007), solving conflicts between and within communities requires a scrutiny and revisiting of the values of members to a conflict and arriving at a common level ground and understanding. In the traditional format of a community, the process of conflict resolution allows the issues behind the conflict to be solved based on the values that the community subscribes to. Further, the solutions may require cooperation, rethinking, and redefining of the community’s values to avoid such conflicts in the future. However, with the emergence of digital media, such shared values have been threatened and/or have made communities highly divided. Such divisions make it difficult for communities to engage and sustain a constructive discussion in solving conflicts as they emerge.
Another important aspect of a community is identity. In definition, community indicates a group of people who share values and most importantly, an identity (Simmel, 2002). Such identity leads to a sense of belonging, which ensures that a community’s membership is sustained in the end. However, the emergence of digital media, especially the social network media, has brought a new twist to the concept identity (Allwood & Schroeder, 2000). Through social media networks, more often than not, people choose to remain anonymous or hide their identity by using pseudonyms, which lead to a creation of a virtual community that is based on fake identities. Such lack of identity between members may go across gender, race, and other traditional modes of identity and membership into a community. The outcome is the erosion of the definition of a community in the traditional sense (Koc, 2006). Consequently, it is evident that digital media has and continues to threaten the definition and conception of community since it has brought numerous changes and new norms that do not align with the society in the traditional sense.
How Digital Media Promotes Communities
Throughout the history of human civilization, it is worth noting that communities have sought to make communication between members and non-members fast and effective. From the age of oral communication, messengers, early electronic communication devices, and later digital media, the central tenet has been on improving the effectiveness of communication within and outside communities. In many instances, communication methods have evolved to reflect the changes that have been experienced by communities throughout history such as industrialization, World War I and II, and globalization among other changes that have shaken the society.
As the world has welcomed an era of globalization where people travel widely for different purposes such as education and work among other reasons, maintaining a community in the traditional sense has become more and more difficult. Social networks and other forms of digital media allow people to remain informed about the happening in the society on the go and almost as fast as events happen (Elliot & Urry, 2010). Such a high level of virtual interaction that is facilitated by technology leads to the formation of virtual communities. These virtual communities exist majorly online where they share information. They are brought together by shared interests such as games, place of origin, and education among other factors (Kendall, 2011). As people move across the world or different geographic locations, the need to remain in contact becomes an important tool for ensuring continuity of shared interests and bonds in one’s life. Consequently, the digital media has eliminated the restriction of time and space. Hence, it has provided a platform where people can maintain close conduct with their friends, follow-up events that are happening in their communities, and create new friends.
While there are concerns that online and virtual communities do not have a shared identity, the definition of identity is highly contested. To proponents of virtual communities, the reasons why such communities exist indicate shared values and identities. Such proponents claim that these identities are the new realities that the society must warm up to since the traditional sense of identity has changed. In addition, many online friends eventually put the effort to have a face-to-face meeting with a desire of advancing the online identities into real life. According to Urry (2004), the emergence of digital media, specifically social networks, is in line with the human desire of remaining interconnected, as it is difficult to imagine human communities and even life itself without such networks. Through digital media, the world is better informed than any other period in history, thus leading to what has been referred to as the information age, where information plays an important role in defining the society in the 21st century. Consequently, digital media has allowed the continuation of communities, despite the threats of globalization. Besides, it has promoted the formation of virtual communities and information sharing platforms that are relevant in the highly globalized world.
Developments such as the emergence of digital media in the 20th century and its rapid growth in the 21st century due to technological advancements in the computer and internet technology have brought different repercussions on communities. As discussed above, it has disrupted communities by reducing face-to-face communication, which is an important process of communicating values and ideas within members of a given community. However, to many proponents of digital media, digital media is a timely technology, which has acted to foster community continuity in an age of globalization where people have become geographically separated due to different reasons such as education and work.
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