You may think I have written the title wrongly. That it should have been: social media facilitates change; they don’t hinder it. That is also true. Yet, I shall maintain my question because I think in certain ways, social media is negative for change, and they take away the time from other important activities.
It is also true that the social media has democratized the mass media sector at large. Ordinary people can spread SMS messages, use Facebook and Internet Websites, and so on. No gatekeepers stop us, as it is in newspapers, TV and radio stations. Often, our audience is little, but sometimes, many people listen. In future, though, it is likely that the ‘loudest voices’ in the social media, too, will be those of the professionals.
In recent years, the different mass media channels (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books and so on) are no longer just the property of wealthy media houses and government agencies. They have become available to others at a reasonable price. The government control has been loosened in most countries, including in Pakistan a decade ago. It is true that the content is often presented in more amateurish ways, but it is also true that the new mass media situation has many positive, democratic aspects.
The situation is still fluid without fixed structures. That certainly also includes the social media. But one thing is certain: we spend far too much time and resources as mass media consumers – and now also as producers. We watch TV, send SMS messages, use Facebook, and so on. Yet, it is often a very shallow and scattered form of information consumption and communication. We may be aware of many things, but we don’t always know how to sort apples from oranges. We have heard about many things, but we have little deeper knowledge of all the things that ‘fly through the air’. Thus, we simply stick to the old knowledge and old ways, not consider the new.
No, I wouldn’t be without it all in the modern mass media, but I would like some more order. And I would certainly like to know how I could claim back some of the time I had for other things a decade ago. New technology should rather help us to be more efficient and thus have more time for other things in our busy daily lives. Or maybe it is not the technology that is wrong; it is all the commercial interests that hijack it all?
A few days ago when I attended a seminar in Islamabad about the role of social media in the development discourse, nobody in the otherwise competent panel, mentioned traditional ways of holding meetings and discussing political and other current issues. Nobody spoke about traditional interest organizations, such as labour unions, political parties, religious groups, parents-teachers organizations at schools, professional interest organizations, and so on. Such organizations have proven successful in the local communities and beyond in the past. They are certainly going to be more important than media-communication in future, too. At the meeting, the term ‘revolution’ wasn’t mentioned either, but the ‘Arab spring’ was used in relatively sweeping analyses, with street-smart comments about politics and change.
When we consider the role of the social media in the development discourse, with mobile phone calls and messages, Facebook and Internet, in the lead, the debate quickly include other modern media. But we must analyze the whole media sector, with all its information and communication technology (ICT), in the broader context of social discourse. We must not overlook that the ‘old world media’, which were modern only a few decades ago, have many sophisticated ways to facilitate discourse. Often, the old ways for spreading information and arranging debates were better and deeper, with the use of books and radio/TV, letters and posters, but often just holding small and large meetings and rallies. New media can help support such debates today, but not replace them. Deeper studies and analyses are needed over time in inclusive groups. Also, the outcome and end-result of discourse shouldn’t just be media coverage, or messages on Facebook and Internet, but real actions for development and change.
We live in a time when ICT and technocratic thinking form our minds and make our idols. We embrace the novelty of things we haven’t seen before, without considering the value of the old. That means that we risk ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’, as one of the speakers said at the seminar I mentioned above.
Often, we lack concepts and language to understand the new; perhaps we didn’t have clear concepts for the old things either, but at least we knew them from practical utility. Today, we are good at coming up with new words fast, but often ill-defined so that common people don’t understand them, and, I suspect, even specialists may use them as jargons rather than as specialized vocabulary and nomenclature. Often, our Facebook and SMS exchanges are just social conversation and gossip, with little more purpose than a tea party. That is all right, too, but it has little to do with social discourse.
Some thirty years ago, I worked in a modern Norwegian publishing house, exploring how we could use audiovisuals along with books in educational and scientific publishing. Multimedia, we called it. We thought it was very modern, and I think it was. But I also remember a thoughtful older friend blaming us for having a very restrictive thinking to the new as well, and a formalistic approach to education. Our vocabulary and concepts showed a technocratic approach to education, he said, reminding us that to teach and learn is much more complex than what happens on an assembly line in a factory.
We agreed that the new technology could help us do new things, if we were conscious of the past, too. Soon we realized that the modern instructional media would mainly be good for pre-planned content, with little feedback and communication between teacher, or rather, the producers of the programmes, and the learners. The films, videos, slide shows and other new media with books were all to be seen as a support to the old classroom situation, not to replace it. That was certainly the case for distance education as well.
At the same time, a parallel trend was prevalent, where teachers wanted to give more emphasis to group work, and let the students explore and find their own way through the curriculum. Less time should be spent on lectures and other pre-planned presentations, and more on discussions and thinking. The curriculum was sometimes organized as themes or problem areas, with the teachers as advisers, and senior learners they, too. None should be seen as having final answers to questions, in this case, in education and related fields.
In such an understanding of education, the modern media and distance education were given little heed. The modern media were often seen as a hindrance to real learning. But, at the same time, we did also use some of that instructional technology, albeit to a limited extent.
This piece of history is a generation old. But it is relevant to our debate about social media today. They, too, may be standing between reality and the people, be they learners or leaders, consumers or producers of information and knowledge.
Life is never either black or white; it is always a combination of the two, with all the different shades of grey in-between. Hence, the modern media, including the current waves and trends of social media, will be ‘modern’ only for a couple of decades. We must consider and analyze how to use them in positive ways. They shouldn’t be standing in the way for real development discourse, social and political debate, and the action that must follow. We will realize that most important ‘media’ are old-fashioned meetings, debates, analyses and actions. The modern media are important tools that can help us, if used well. But the media must never shape the message.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.