Information communication technology (ICT) made it possible for people to communicate beyond national borders. In particular, social media play an important role in making a place where people communicate each other, for example Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and so on. ICT and various types of architectures have developed and prevailed in many areas of the world since 2000, and those technologies have made it easier for users to send others message and also to find what they want to know by searching on the internet. Some people use social networking services (SNSs) as their social occasion in a virtual world. Some access blogs on the internet to write in the diary every day. Those know, to a lesser or greater degree, that others might check and see their information or message posting on websites. Moreover, there are many active users those expect to receive a reply and communicate with others positively through social media. In other words, under these circumstances, social media function as the third place (Oldenburg, 1999). People have two essential and indispensable places in their lives: one is home and another is working place. Further to those places, people have one more place where they could have relationships with others informally in public (what Oldenburg called “informal public life”). And the third place contributes not only to unite people in communities but also to know how they contribute in various problems and crises there. Therefore the third place would nurture a relationship with others and mutual trust under the unrestricted access condition, and also it would be open for discussion and ground for democracy (Oldenburg, 1999). In this context, social media can provide the third place to users in some cases. This study explores that how social media affect people’s behavior from the perspective of communication theory. And this study considers how online communication has an impact on real life focusing on the process of political change in Tunisia, in order to see its impact more clearly and practically. Additionally it looks at the process of enhancing solidarity through social media by citing the case of the massive disaster in Japan 2011.
Social contexts of communication are defined by geographic, organizational and situational variables, and those variables influence the contents of communication among people (Sproull and Kiesler, 1986). And, in order to discern social context cues, communicators observe static cues (physical setting, location etc.) and dynamic cues (non-verbal behavior like gesture or facial expression) in communicating with others. Communicators’ behavior is determined based on social context cues and they can adjust their behavior depending on situations through the process of interaction between them. However, in online communication, it is more difficult for communicators to perceive static and/or dynamic elements compared to face-to-face communication. Because in many cases social media limit the number of characters and the amount of data that they can post while making it possible for users to communicate regardless of physical distance, national boundaries and time difference. On the other hand, participation is seen as the key element in the recent trend toward democratization and in real numerous users send and receive a huge amount of information via social media to cultivate a relationship with others and strengthen mutual exchange beyond borders. In general, it is recognized that social media advance participation through exchanging information with minimal social context cues. Furthermore, the social impact and power of social media is paid great attention in the wake of political turmoil and rebel campaigns in Islamic countries.
Tunisia is now going through a critical period in which Tunisian people require the interim government to create a new, free and transparent government. In January 2011, Tunisian president Ben Ali was deposed after his 23 years presidency period and fled a country with his family. In the process of Tunisian political change, Tunisian people shared information on what happened in the country and when and where anti-government protests were held, by social media such as Facebook and twitter. In other words, social media seemed to support political change in Tunisia. Behind it, the number of the internet users is 3.6 million, which is 34% of the population total, and there are 1.6 million users of Facebook roughly equivalent to 16% of the population (Internet World Stats, 2010). The penetration of the internet is very late in African countries. Among those countries Tunisian people enjoy relatively good standard of ICT and internet literacy. On the other hand, Tunisian government has blocked particular websites by the internet censorship based on URL and keywords because of political reasons. The government has censored not only pornographic or terrorist websites but also political opposition or human right websites. In actual, websites such as YouTube, Dailymotion, Le monde, Liberation had been prohibited by the government since 1990’s. Facebook was one of the few social media free to access in Tunisia, and which provided the people with information and opportunities to share it with others. Even at the early stage of political change, the government tried to block access to the internet to upload any movie. Little information was diffused by Tunisian media. Under these circumstances, for the people living abroad, Facebook functioned as primary source of information to have direct access to daily events in Tunisia. They followed these events through Facebook and YouTube and shared interesting movies or information with their friends, sometimes giving comments and opinions.
Under these restrictive access conditions, social media like Facebook provides users with opportunities to communicate with others and also to state their opinion, in order to overcome constraints and the old regime. In this context, social media serve as the third place and users develop solidarity and reinforce identity through online communication. In fact profile pictures in Facebook showed clearly how social media foster solidarity and identity as Tunisian people. After anti-government protests came to the fore, many Tunisian users changed their profile pictures to the same icon which represented Tunisian flag simultaneously. One Tunisian interviewee said that it was just part of his feeling of home-ownership and national identity. As is obvious from the statistical data on the internet users mentioned above, it is estimated that the number of in-country users of Facebook are fewer than the number of users living abroad. Many users followed with bated breaths what was going on in Tunisia sitting in front of computers in foreign countries. In other words, they showed in-country users that they were all caring about political change as the Tunisian even they lived abroad, by the way of using the symbolic flag icon. And this phenomenon is recognized as a kind of participation to collective movement through social media regardless of physical distance or time difference.
However, communication through social media has some problems. At first, exchanged information via social media is minimized social context cues under severe restricted conditions, and decreasing social context cues leads to remove restrictions on communication substantively (Sproull and Kiesler, 1986). Therefore information tends to be extreme and there is a risk of group polarization. Second, information receivers gather fragmented information in social media and rebuild it as simulated experience based on their experience in real life. In other words they make much of information plausible to understand easier in the light of their own experience or to relive the experiences of its senders. And, through this process, users develop a sense of solidarity and share expectation as well as norms organizing them as one community. That is, social media could be the important tool for people to get information under serious conditions, for example, under rebel campaigns as I stated above or under massive disasters.
In terms of developing solidarity through social media, we can observe it in the case of the massive disaster in Japan. Under severe social conditions, it would be very difficult for people to use conventional media such as TV, radio or phone. When the massive earthquake attacked to Japan, in severe damaged areas, some of conventional media were destroyed by tsunami and many people were stranded in many places. What is worse, the tsunami took away everything and destroyed almost all buildings and houses including TV towers and phone cables. People had no tool to find out about the safety of their relatives and friends and to get information about what happened to Japan. However, under that difficult situation the internet still worked and people used it to check their safety and gather information about the disaster by using emails and social networking service. People including both victims and non-victims exchanged much of information to survive or to support others through social media. Especially twitter was useful to inform where victims were and who needed rescue. And many people encouraged others by exchanging messages posted on social media. In those processes, many messages were very conscious and emphasize that Japanese survived surely and Japan would recover from the disaster in the future because of people’s solidarity and great efforts. For example, many people tweet “we are the Japanese, we can overcome the disaster”, “We believe Japan’s power”, or “Ganbaro! Nippon!! (Make the best! Do overcome the disaster! Japan!!) on twitter. Those messages reflect Japanese cultural characteristics, for instance industrious and conscientious worker, and based on those messages people enhance their identity as Japanese and develop solidarity among them.
Therefore, it could be said that social values accrete influence on users in particular communities and advance self-stereotyping among them as solidarity and social identity are enhanced. On the other hand, emphasizing particular identities and norms is fraught with social risk of exclusion of others. In the case of Tunisian political protest activity, some people call Tunisian political change as “Facebook revolution” or “twitter revolution” on the internet. Are these descriptions really pertinent? Indeed, social media has played the important role as “hub for information” and the third place in political change. In this respect we have responsibility to develop and keep social media in a good shape because it can contribute greatly, not only to people’s personal need but also society’s need for solidarity, freedom and democracy. However combination of multiple factors raises a revolution as we all know. Things are still ongoing in Tunisia and affecting other countries like Egypt. We need to carefully observe subsequent developments and discern the impact of social media continuously.
Internet World Stats (2010) Tunisia: Internet Usage and Marketing Report, available online: http://www.internetworldstats.com/af/tn.htm (access on February 7, 2011).
Kiesler, S. and Sproull, L.S. (1986) Reducing Social Context Cues: Electronic Mail in Organizational Communication, Management Science, Vol.32, No.11, pp.1492-1512.
Oldenburg, R. (1999) The Great Good Place, Cambridge: Da Capo Press.