The Wasted Power of Social Media

The GlobalWebIndex study[1] published this year[2], showed that: “Latin America is the region in the world that has the highest consumption of social network applications[3]”, highlighting that the countries with the highest use are Brazil and Colombia and the population segment that uses them the most are young people and adolescents.

The high dependence on these platforms is an issue that concerns many experts in the region, as we analyzed earlier [4], the approach could be the opposite, if we assume the high level of penetration as an unprecedented opportunity for the reduction of the gaps.

Can we bridge the gap by leveraging social media?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B. – – @galevy 

A common characteristic that has preceded the arrival of a new information and communication technology has been the resistance it generates in many social contexts, which occurred with the printing press [5], radio, television [6] and indeed the Internet, triggering fears, myths and in some cases, apocalyptic discourses. At the same time, certain very orthodox sectors of academia have underestimated the historical potential of the media, and although it should not be ignored that there are some risks associated with the excessive use of an information and communication technology, the potential benefits are generally greater than the actual risks.

According to the researcher and PhD in Education, Fernando Zapata, social media has greatly enhanced the interaction between human beings, generating real possibilities of connection that in another historical moment would have been unimaginable, but mainly we have not known how to take advantage of them as an instrument to reduce social gaps:

“Something that has been dangerously relegated from academic discussions, is that social media, especially through mobile devices, are very powerful instruments to encourage the development of learning, whether informal, alternative or divergent.

It is very regrettable that the potential of social media is not recognized from academia, simply because they are entertaining or because they produce pleasure, lagging behind their use in contexts such as education and social development”. Phd Fernando Zapata Duque

The Conquest of the Masses

The GlobalWebIndex study published in the third trimester of 2019 shows Latin America as the region in the world that makes the most use of social media applications, with an average of 212 minutes per day for each citizen, while the global average is 143 minutes and in industrialized countries such as the United States, it is around 116 minutes, making these figures very striking.

The two Latin American countries with the highest average daily consumption of social applications are Brazil and Colombia, the first one with an average of 225 minutes per connected citizen and the second one with 216 minutes per day, while Argentina is around 207 minutes, although when the population is segmented and the spectrum is reduced to young people between 16 and 24 years old, Argentina gets the first place in the world in this ranking, with an average of 257 minutes per day.

Mexico, on the other hand, has an average of 190 minutes, below the global average.

The most striking feature of the study is that Brazil is in second place in the world ranking, only surpassed by the Philippines, that holds the first place in the world with 248 minutes. On the other hand, Colombia is in the third position among the countries that most consume social network applications in the world.

Although these indicators show, as we warned at the time, that people continue to use digital media for “chatting”, gossiping and boasting, it is also indisputable evidence of the success that social media such as Facebook have had in conquering people around the world and offering solutions that are useful, entertaining and friendly, but mainly, evidence that in a continent as complex as ours, it is possible to reduce the connectivity gaps, when there is a more accessible tool not only from the economic, but from the technological usability.

Massification and appropriation as a differential factor

One of the biggest barriers to reducing social gaps is the massification of digital services and the subsequent appropriation by users. A specific case is the computer, a device that did not manage to exceed a penetration of 22% of households[7] in Latin America, according to ECLAC figures in 2017, while in the case of smart mobile devices, according to figures from a study published in 2018 by GSMA, they exceed a penetration of 62% of the population[8], something that is paradoxical because smartphones are much more recent devices than computers. However, thanks to their communion with social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook, their intuitive interfaces, the associated services they provide and many “Zero Rate” plans offered by operators, they have achieved levels of appropriation and massification never seen before in the field of telecommunications, significantly narrowing the connectivity gap by allowing millions of people who could be considered technologically illiterate in other digital scenarios, to now be recognized as active and effective users of certain digital services, thus constituting an unprecedented historical opportunity to reduce the other gaps.

To a great extent, the success that smartphones have had at the hardware level and social media at the software level, has been its intuitive and well thought out designs based on the characteristics, capabilities, needs and realities of its users, a huge effort that has meant decades of research for companies like Apple or Facebook.

“These platforms have privileged and prioritized the design and user experience over many other variables, which through the design of interfaces and the solution of usability problems, have managed to seduce and attract users, making the use of these technologies less and less complex, to the extent that nowadays, when we evaluate them, we no longer use the levels of complexity as a reference, but rather the scales of ease and usability, making it possible for a very wide range of people to take advantage of them, from small children to older adults”. Phd Fernando Zapata Duque.

It is paradoxical that while the power of social media is disqualified in many scenarios, especially the academic one, because it is considered trivial, light, entertaining and pleasant, the same academy wears out developing learning environments that are confusing and complex for users, with interfaces that do not succeed in attracting or engaging, billions of dollars are invested in each year, while a technology that has the capacity to penetrate the masses to bring tele-education, tele-health, online banking, tele-working and an infinite number of possibilities is wasted, relegating these platforms to the plane of the trivial.

As the researcher Fernando Zapata warns, a “change of chip” is needed and should start in the academia, but it should permeate all professional levels and horizons, especially people who have the capacity to make decisions and define public policies regarding ICT. Instead of criticizing the use, massification and appropriation of social media, strategies should be designed for their appropriation, allowing them not only to be used for entertainment, but also to permeate all social spheres as an instrument for bringing education, health and culture to all corners of the planet and especially to our continent.

Capturing the attention of people

One of the greatest quantifiable impacts that we can measure from the use of the smartphone and social media is the time that people spend on it, which has been growing exponentially, so it is very likely that users are leaving behind things in the material world to develop activities in the digital plane, which although it has many dangers that should not be neglected, at the same time it deploys great opportunities in all areas of human knowledge and therefore it is necessary to conquer and colonize these scenarios, from the academic, cultural and social.

In conclusion, while the exponential growth of social media in Latin America has generated alarms and warnings in many sectors, which should not be neglected, it is possible to address the phenomenon from a completely different approach: opportunities. We are witnessing a unique possibility to reach millions of people in real time, through devices and interfaces that are already in the hands of citizens and that if we manage to take advantage of them efficiently, they could be the vehicle for the implementation of educational, social, cultural and teleworking projects. This is simply a matter that can be solved by changing the perspective and opening the mind.

[1] Link to Global Web Index

[2] BBC article on the Global Web Index Study

[3] Article: Latin America, the region of the world that consumes more social media

[4] Article: Latin America, the region of the world that consumes more social media

[5] The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Volume 162 of Akal University Series, Modern History Series, Elizabeth Eisenstein, AKAL Editions, 1994, ISBN 8446002809, 9788446002802, 288 pages

[6] Information Society and Media Culture (Combyte 2003), Netbiblio Collection, 2003, ISBN 8497450450, 9788497450454, 328 pages

[7] The Status of Broadband in Latin America – ECLAC Study

[8] Study: The Mobile Economy in Latin America and the Caribbean

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