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How Do Americans Perceive the Role of Social Media & Technology in Their Lives?

Culture

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We partnered with YouGov to find out if the sentiments of U.S. adults match those of tech industry insiders.

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A decade ago, the flash and promise of social media and emerging technology platforms brought forth a wave of optimism that hinted at a future utopia in which social networks and smartphones would bring people closer together. Of course, since then, the reality of that promise has become clouded by the emergence of dominant social platforms with seemingly unbridled power, “fake news” that has the ability to shape events in the real world, and a pervasive concern about where and how technologies like AI should fit into our lives.

Curious to learn more about how everyday Americans view their relationship with social media and technology, we partnered with YouGov to find out if the sentiments of U.S. adults match those of tech industry insiders, or if they share a different viewpoint about the continued entanglement of technology and humanity. Here’s what we found.

Nearly half of Americans think that social media has had a negative impact on democracy in the U.S.

The recent testimony of Mark Zuckerberg before lawmakers was a watershed moment for the tech community. Up to this point, the major platforms had been able to scale with little to no interference from the government. However, with revelations following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there is a growing concern that, left unchecked, these systems will continue to be used to shape events in the real world.

So, how do everyday Americans feel about the role of social media and technology in democracy? Forty-eight percent U.S. adults in our survey, conducted prior to Facebook’s congressional hearings, think that social media and technology have a negative effect on democracy in the U.S.. Moreover, older Americans are notably more pessimistic about the ways in which these systems affect our democracy.

Whereas just 38 percent of Americans 18-34 were pessimistic about the role of social media and tech in democracy, 44 percent of people 35-54 and a 59 percent of people 55+ said that the effect has been negative. It’s also worth noting that the general pessimism increased with respondents’ level of education. Seventy-percent of Americans with postgraduate degrees said the effect has been negative compared to just 36 percent of those with a high school diploma.

“Filter bubbles” aren’t necessarily algorithmically created; in fact, they can be self-imposed.

One of the most prominent buzzwords that emerged after the 2016 election was the concept of a “filter bubble,” which was used to describe the propensity of social networks to elevate the viewpoints that corroborate our own in a way that distorts the realities of the world around us.

Critics have been quick to blame platforms like Facebook for this phenomenon, arguing that algorithmic content feeds tend to make users more close-minded. However, our research indicates that sometimes the “filter bubbles” we experience are deliberately created.

Forty-seven percent of U.S. adults have blocked, unfollowed, or unfriended someone, or left an online community because of differences in worldview or political views. As feeds do tend to reflect the types of content people are most likely engage with, at the same time, many people also consciously “block out” the people around them who challenge their own ideologies.

These behaviors are especially interesting in light of the widely held belief that the Internet would create a more open-minded populous. In our survey, 45 percent of Americans say that social media has had no influence on how they see the world over the past five years.

When it comes to the spread of misinformation online or harmful content, most Americans blame content creators and not the platforms themselves.

The revelations around Cambridge Analytica have brought forth criticisms that the major tech players have not done enough to protect user privacy and stop the spread of malicious and misleading content. But what do ordinary Americans think?

Most people say the creators and distributors of misinformation and harmful content bear the brunt of the responsibility, and not the platforms themselves. In fact, more than twice as many people blame the creators more so than they do the platforms (39 percent vs. 16 percent).

It’s also worth noting that younger adults (18-34) were more likely to say that the responsibility didn’t lie with anyone in particular (25 percent vs. 19 percent across all demos).

That said, nearly half of adults think that the major tech platforms make their decisions based on business value and revenue, rather than ethics.

Although a relatively small number of adults believe that digital platforms are most responsible for the spread of misinformation and malicious content, our research found that 47 percent of U.S. adults feel these technology platforms’/providers’ motivations are grounded in business value and revenue, rather than specifically in ethics.

Across the age groups surveyed, younger adults were less critical of the business practices of major tech platforms. While 55 percent of adults 55+ said decisions made by the platforms are not grounded in ethics, only 36 percent of 18-to-34 year-olds felt the same way.

More than half of Americans say social media is a source of news & information, with 29 percent of millennials saying it is a primary source.

The ways news is spread online and encountered by citizens has dramatically changed with the advent of social media. In a mass media world, Americans relied on journalists and trusted outlets to curate the most important news of the day and share that content via one-way, mass communications (e.g. a daily paper or nightly newscast).

We were curious how everyday Americans are experiencing the relationship between social media and news gathering. Our research found that while most Americans do not rely exclusively on social media for gathering news and information, more than half of U.S. adults get at least some of their news from social. For adults 18 to 34, the ties between social media and news are stronger: 29 percent say social media is their primary source of news.

Many millennials are approaching purchases and experiences with an “Instagram-first” mindset.

Ever heard the phrase “do it for the ‘gram?” A popular tagline among millennials and Gen Z-ers, it suggests an instance in which an individual does something for the sole purpose of capturing that moment in social media. We’ve heard time and time again that consumers are increasingly buying products and experience life with an “Instagram-first” mindset, suggesting that the term “conspicuous consumption” has taken on new life thanks to social media.

Among U.S. millennials four in 10 say they have purchased an item in order to talk about it in social media and nearly half of them say they have pursued an experience for this reason.

But are most Americans behaving this way? Our research suggests that these behaviors are not common among U.S. adults. Fifty-five percent of U.S. adults say they have never purchased a product and 47 percent have never participated in an activity with the primary intention of sharing it on social media.

Just 12 percent of U.S. adults say that receiving a social media notification on their smartphone makes them feel “happy.”

How about the theory that receiving a social media notification can be a boon to self-esteem and happiness? As it turns out, the first feeling most adults have when they see a social media alert on their smartphone is not necessarily a positive one. In fact, just 12 percent of U.S. adults say they feel happy when they receive such an alert. The most common response: “indifference” (with 24 percent reporting this sentiment).

Younger adults (18-34) were more likely to be emotive, one way or another, when receiving a smartphone alert. Millennials were more likely to say notifications make them feel happy (21 percent) excited (20 percent) and anxious (11 percent) than older respondents.

U.S. adults are 2X as likely to say social media has a negative impact on other people’s self-esteem as compared with their own.

Much has been written and studied about the impact of social media and technology on self-esteem, especially among teenagers and children. In our own study of U.S. adults, we were interested in finding out two things: first, how people view the impact of social media on their own self-esteem; and second, how they feel social media influences the self-esteem of those around them.

Our findings reveal an interesting discrepancy: While only 14 percent U.S. adults indicate that social media has a negative impact on their self-esteem, they are twice as likely to say that social media is detrimental to other people’s self-esteem (30 percent).

So, what’s happening here? Perhaps the highly publicized pitfalls of technology on our sociological well-being are overstated, or, perhaps cognitive dissonance comes into play when we consider how our own well-being is influenced by emerging media.

Overall, U.S. adults are pessimistic when it comes to the future of technology, but younger generations are more optimistic.

Given the present concern around the expanding role of social media and tech in the world, we wanted to find out how Americans see these forces taking shape in the years to come.

We found that most U.S. adults are pessimistic overall; however, there is a silver lining: younger generations (18-34) are more optimistic than adults over 35. Based on our research, only 30 percent of 18-to-34 year-olds were pessimistic about the expanding role of technology in the world, compared to 50 percent of 55+ year-olds who said the same.

Pessimism also increased with level of education: 31 percent of Americans with a high school diploma had negative thoughts about the future of tech compared to 54 percent of adults with a postgraduate degree.

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So, what does it all mean? As our findings suggest, many people view the role of social media and technology in their lives as a complex and at times conflicted. We rely on digital platforms to connect with our friends and increasingly view them as a portal to gathering news and information about the world around us, and yet, many of us are distrusting of technology and have real concerns about the expanding role of social media and tech in our future.

The relationship between humanity and technology will be explored in detail at Social Media Week’s global events this year in New York, Los Angeles, and London, as part of our 2018 theme, “Closer.”

Interested in learning more? Limited tickets are available to Social Media Week’s 10th-anniversary event (April 24-27, 2018). Register here.

About this study:

Social Media Week commissioned YouGov to conduct a survey of 2,179 U.S. adults in March 2018 to explore how the rising influence of social media and technology has changed the way people form relationships, engage as members of society, and exist as individuals in the world. The goal of the study was to provide new and unique insights around the tenuous role of technology in society, which is at the center of Social Media Week’s 2018 global theme, and help shed light on the ways in which everyday people want technology to fit within their lives.




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