When Social Goes Digital

September 10, 2019

Ray Titus is Dean and Professor of Marketing, Alliance school of Business, Alliance University, Bengaluru.The digital is no more a distant reality; it has made deep inroads into the lives of even the most ‘un-digital’ of us. While beckoning us to be part of an expansive world that holds many attractions—unlimited freedom and deeper connect are a few—it is ushering in unprecedented changes in our behavioral patterns too.

The digital is no more a distant reality; it has made deep inroads into the lives of even the most ‘un-digital’ of us. While beckoning us to be part of an expansive world that holds many attractions—unlimited freedom and deeper connect are a few—it is ushering in unprecedented changes in our behavioral patterns too.

The digital landscape has visibly altered social behavior, and such alterations, in turn, have had a significant impact on people’s lifestyle and consumption choices. It is important for institutions to understand and adapt to digital-enabled changes, especially those that have caused noteworthy behavioral shifts.

Here are six digital enabled trends that are shaping contemporary virtual social landscapes around us.

Inclusive unfettered socializing

Socializing virtually has no limitations, either of geography or even demography. That means anybody anywhere can virtually socialize. This may not mean much to some, but to those who have culturally been denied a chance at socialization, this is a breakout moment. For a fifty-plus mother hailing from a culturally conservative community where women are not allowed to step out of homes on their own, a Facebook account with personal access is a means to overcome the physical limitation of real-world socialization. For many, such a chance at making virtual connections and engaging at their will is as close to living and socializing freely as it can get. A 2016 Pew internet research study revealed that ownership of smartphones among adults in the US aged 65 and above rose 24 percentage points from 2013.1 The use of social networking sites had risen by 7 percentage points since 2013. More than 4 in 10 seniors below the age of 75 said they used social networking sites. This year, according to eMarketer, older users in the UK over the age of 55 will become the second biggest demographic of Facebook users. It is predicted that there will be 6.4 million users in the age group of 55 to 65 to join Facebook by the end of 2019.2

Sejal Valera is co-founder, Dabit lab – digital habits research lab and curriculum research lead – institute of product leadership, Bengaluru.

 

Filtering of social images

If the virtual world has allowed for inclusionary socialization, the technology applications that enable for such a social activity to be experienced have been designed to ensure that images people put out of themselves for social consumption are as ‘ideal’ as they can get. So, when 19-year-olds with Instagram accounts put up ‘near-perfect’ pictures that use filters and other app features to look their very best, what they do is play out their fantasy of presenting their social selves in line with their aspirations. In the digital social world, attractiveness is no longer exclusive to the rich and the famous. Technology allows anyone and everyone to exhibit their near-perfect ideal social selves to an adoring social public. A 2015 research study on motivation behind the use of filters on Flicker found that filter photos have 21 percent higher chance of being viewed and 45 percent higher chance of being commented on in comparison to unfiltered photos.3

Preserving connectedness

Digital not only allows for connections via virtual socialization, but also preserves them, providing those that connect to stay so without any hindrances or limitations. In fact, virtual connections make up for the inherent limitations in physical face-to-face engagements. Take the case of time and space. It is not easy to find either in the physical world. In fact, the people involved need to invest greater amounts of time and effort to ensure they can find the time as well as appropriate physical spaces to socialize. That is not so in the virtual world. Neither space nor time is a hindrance. Socializing can happen anywhere in the virtual world and when it comes to time, connections can even be formed without people needing to come together at the same time. Video messages can, for example, be recorded at one point in time to be viewed and responded to at another. A study by the University of Missouri revealed that 9 out of 10 long-distance couples text each other daily while almost 2 out of 10 chatted on video daily. Those who used video chat over text were found to be more satisfied in their relationship. Though technology was found to help long-distance couples, overuse or underuse was found to be harmful.4

Digital not only allows for connections via virtual socialization, but also preserves them, providing those that connect to stay so without any hindrances or limitations.

Abandoning ownership

The virtual social world is why minimalist living can be practised without too many hassles. Virtually connected people can share resources far more than those who live only in the physical world. The latter kind of existence calls for self-sufficiency. In the former, people can connect to ensure optimal utilization of almost anything and everything. Take CouchSurfing for example. Despite some inherent risks, the rise of couch surfing owes its success to the virtual sharing of physical spaces by a diverse set of people who are digitally connected to each other. Again, it is such virtual connections that are at the heart of much of the ‘pooling’ being practised in local communities. The future of private transportation is again another territory where ownership will be abandoned. People banding together as cohorts without owning cars will use them in an autonomous, shared manner to achieve their goal of getting from one place to another. It is only a matter of time when this kind of model evolves into an abandonment of personal ownership, paving way to the practice of collective sharing. In the digital sharing economy, 64 percent of people around the world who have access to internet have been surveyed as willing to share the assets or services online for financial gain. Presently, there are around 600 to 700 crowdfunding platforms located in over 45 countries that are providing a mammoth $35 billion to entrepreneurs and small business owners through lending an investment.5

Living in parallel

As much as virtual existences allow for visible social connectedness without limitations, they also enable people online to remain anonymous when they choose to. In fact, in the digital world, there is an acute practise of parallel existences. Those that openly present themselves on virtual social platforms equally navigate digital highways in incognito mode. The digital world is the best bet for anyone who doles out loud public displays while simultaneously seeking to stay hidden, so they can play out impulses that may not find social acceptance. This is the reason why a popular, moralizing YouTuber may simultaneously be the nasty faceless troll that nobody recognizes. Again, it is not just about negative behavior online. It is about people having the flexibility to be a part of virtual social circles when they so see a need, and then to be completely on their own when they choose to. So, a mother who is visibly part of a virtual mommy community is side by side a masked reviewer who expresses her personal experience-based opinions about branded baby products without any hesitation. A study presented at USENIX Security Symposium revealed that in 2017, almost two out of three internet users reported that they knew what private browsing is and one in five surveyed admitted to using the incognito mode while browsing. When asked why they used such a mode, 48 percent preferred not disclosing the reason while 18 percent said they shopped incognito, and 7 percent admitted to looking up other people.

What digital has done is dramatically alter social behavior. Such alterations have happened in the quickest of time with the least of resistance.

Seeking trust

It is now commonplace to see people turning to digital information to seek answers to the questions they have. It is what digital has to offer that they now trust over answers that may come from people in their proximity. In the world of digital ecosystems and virtual information, the chances of getting credible answers from legitimate experts are almost a surety. Not so when a limited number of ‘people in the flesh’ living in near proximity of the answer seeker are involved. The chances of bias with such people are greater than the virtual crowd that collaborates to put out credible information. With information available at the expense of a few clicks, parents for example would trust digital reviews of a school than the opinions of friends and acquaintances to arrive at a decision about admitting their children. When traveling to an unfamiliar destination, rather than stopping to ask for directions, digitally adept drivers would completely place their trust in Google Maps. The app automatically is the ‘go-to guy’ for such drivers. People today often whip out their phones and surf to get answers than check with people next door. A Bright Local consumer review survey conducted in 2018 in the US revealed that 85 percent of consumers trusted online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Again, one out of two consumers looked for at least a 4-star rating before they chose to use a product or a service.6

All in all, what digital has done is dramatically alter social behavior. Such alterations have happened in the quickest of time with the least of resistance because those involved in virtual social behavior have reaped its benefits by leveraging its inherent advantages. This they have done knowing that it scores over the world of real-world connections. In the coming days, as digital entrenches deeper into people’s lives, their behavioral choices will further change. What the latter will turn out to be, of course only time will tell.

 

 

01 https://www.pewinternet.org/2017/05/17/technology-use-among-seniors/

02 https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/12/is-facebook-for-old-people-over-55s-flock-in-as-the-young-leave

03 http://comp.social.gatech.edu/papers/icwsm15.why.bakhshi.pdf

04 https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/15248/ research.pdf

05 https://www.digitalsharingeconomy.com/digital-sharing-economy

06 https://www.brightlocal.com/research/local-consumer-review-survey/