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READ: Our Networks Today

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How have networks of knowledge changed since 1969, according to the authors?
  2. What are some ways that social media connects people, according to the authors?
  3. How has social media helped people to organize?
  4. What are some elements of the ‘dark side’ of social media, according to the authors?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. In your personal experience, has social media and the internet made you feel more of a ‘global citizen’ and connected to other people, more connected to your family and local community, or more isolated overall?
  2. How has the size and scale of networks changed over time? In a few sentences, describe the long history of changes in human networks.
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Our Networks Today

Photo of a young woman in a hijab using her laptop outside the presidential palace walls of the Morsi government.
By Andalusia Knoll Soloff and Trevor R. Getz
Do the internet and social networks help bring a global population closer together? Do they promote a better life for people? How have YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter altered our reality?


One of the things that makes us human is collective learning—our ability to share knowledge and pass it down across generations. The networks of knowledge we have built have expanded across human history, though at varying speeds and not without a few backward steps. In 1969, the size and speed of these networks took a giant leap when researchers connected a few universities in a digital network called ARPANET, the precursor of the internet. At first available only to a few scientists, today over half the world's population is online. Once requiring complex code, today the internet's search engines and social networking applications allow anyone with a smartphone or other computing device to join in the conversation. But is this maximized connectivity good or bad? And since it's half the world population and not all, what happens to the people who are left out, offline?

‘You’ on social media

Your phone alarm tries to wake you. You snooze it. Minutes later it's back, so you shut it off and, since the device is still in hand, you check your Instagram. How many likes did you get while you were sleeping? How many people looked at your story? Did anyone message you? Next, you check your Snapchat, Tiktok, Facebook, iMessage, Whatsapp, Twitter, and whatever new social network everyone just started using.
Image showing the links between Twitter users mentioning OccupyWallStreet in 2011. The hundreds of lines connecting each pod of users to one another represents how social media connects us to the rest of the world.
Social Media connects you to people around you in ways that your ancestors could not have dreamed of. This is a social network graph showing links between users who mentioned OccupyWallStreet in 2011. By Marc Smith, CC BY 2.0.
You're not alone, even if no one else is in the room with you. All across the globe millions of people are doing the exact same thing, checking out the latest cute cat video, funny meme, makeup tutorial or political diatribe.
Social networks as we know them today have been around for less than twenty years but for many people it's hard to remember a world when they didn't exist. When you arrive at someone's house, do you ring the doorbell, or do you send a message that says "here"? Have you ever gone to the post office to send a letter to a friend or a postcard home while you are traveling? Do you get your music from a compact disc or just search for it on YouTube or Spotify? Ask your parents or guardians how they would have answered these questions twenty years ago.

Social media: Connecting people around the world

Social media and the internet unquestionably have an incredible power to connect people around the world. Take music, for example. In 2012, the song "Gangnam Style" by the Korean Rapper, Psy, went viral. It's catchy chorus and bizarre horse-riding dancing got people across the globe to sing and dance along, shamelessly. "Gangnam Style" became the first video to reach one billion views on YouTube. Internet-based applications like YouTube have caused our musical tastes to become increasingly synchronized worldwide. In 2018, the magazine The Pudding produced an infographic, musical map called Empire Records, analyzing the top YouTube songs in 3000 locations. It revealed that a large portion of the world listened to the same exact song and many to the same genre of music.
Technology has also allowed musicians at opposite ends of the globe to collaborate by both sharing and remixing their traditional culture. In 2014 the French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux released her song "Somos Sur," (We are the South) which also featured British-Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour, connecting resistance movements, beats, and dance moves in the global south.
Social media also allows us to connect in geographically scattered "virtual" communities. For example, Facebook, launched in 2004, is even more popular than YouTube. High school reunions, concerts, baby showers and even block parties are all organized using Facebook Events. People commonly posts "selfies"—a word that didn't exist before Facebook—showing themselves at their best moments. Companies promote their products and some teachers even share their homework assignments via Facebook groups. Families whose members have migrated to different countries across the globe video chat via Facebook Messenger, perhaps showing newborns to their grandparents for the first time.
Social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram keep us connected to each other visually. Images, videos, and stories posted on these apps allow millions of users across the globe to see the daily lives of all users with public profiles, and to respond to them with direct messages or with emoticons expressing approval or disapproval. Online dating apps have largely replaced traditional ways of meeting potential partners in many parts of the world.

Organizing through social media

These new networks based on social media are great examples of collective learning in the modern age. Hashtags allow users to view posts of people with similar interests, whether skateboarding, photojournalism, comic books or martial arts. They have also been used to coordinate and organize movements, often outside of big institutions like governments. In what became known as the Arab Spring in 2010, opposition movements grew in the Middle East as a result of protestors coordinating actions over Twitter and Facebook. During uprisings like those in Chile and Hong Kong in 2019, users increasingly uploaded videos to Instagram and Snapchat, showing themselves out in the streets expressing their discontent with their government.
Aerial photo of a large crowd of protestors lining the streets of a city in Tunisia.
Tunisian police stop protestors along Avenue Bourghiba on January 20, 2011 in Tunis, Tunisia. © Getty Images.
Twitter has been an essential tool within the United States for social movements who use hashtags (#) to mobilize people around a certain cause. In 2013, following the killing of an African American teenager named Trayvon Martin, and the acquittal of the man who killed him, a group of community organizers in Florida launched the hashtag BlackLivesMatter. The hashtag became a movement, well beyond the phone screen and united people who wanted to fight the systemic racism that continues to harm black people. Another example is the MeToo movement focused on helping survivors of sexual violence. Twitter has allowed people who were previously marginalized from mass media to elevate their voices, to engage in important conversations, and to advance policy for the first time.

Social media clearly has a dark side

However, these benefits of social media are not available to all. This is a result of the “digital divide”—the fact that a technology that is "cheap" in one part can be unaffordable by most in another. Almost half the world's population doesn't even have access. Among those who have access, some people—mostly the wealthy or those living in wealthy countries—get better service and have a greater ability to post and consume material.
Percentage of the population with access to the Internet between 1996-2018. Notice the growth over time, but also the division between the “developed” (wealthier countries) and “developing” (poorer countries) worlds. By Jeff Ogden and Jim Scarborough, CC BY 3.0.
Social media also can be used to divide us with messages of hatred or discrimination. Here's just one example: In Sri Lanka in 2018, tensions between two ethnic groups—Muslims and Sinhalese Buddhists—grew much worse as Facebook users fanned the flames of hate. A man uploaded a video in Sinhalese telling a false story that a Muslim restaurant had planted sterilization pills in its food as a plot to prevent the Sinhalese population from expanding. The video went viral and an angry mob of people attacked and burned down the restaurant. Messages calling for the murder of Muslim people started circulating on Facebook. In the following weeks people were burned and beaten to death and investigations reveal that violent messages shared on Facebook most certainly played a role.
In addition, social media can be used to repress as well as liberate. Just as people can use social media apps like Twitter to organize against authoritarian governments, those governments can use them to confuse or suppress protests. In fact, through social media our personal data is available to just about anyone who can pay for it. In 2017, for example, Facebook came under increased scrutiny in the United States when it was revealed that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had inappropriately harvested data from 87 million Facebook users and used the information to influence presidential elections. These "social" campaigns were cleverly crafted and aimed divisive messages at people who were likely to believe them, even when they were false. Today, a great deal of false information is available via social media using the internet, and much of it was created with an intention to divide us from each other.

A world together, or worlds apart?

Social media divides us in other ways as well. Social networks increasingly bring people's private lives into public view. Selfies have become one of the most important forms of expression for young people, controlling teenagers' self-esteem based on how many likes their photos get. Kyla Fox, a clinical therapist who analyzes the impact of selfie culture, put it like this: "If you put out an artificial sense of yourself, that makes it really challenging when you go out into the world and you have to be you—just you."
Beyond self-esteem, social networks can easily make us lonelier, as people retreat into their phones, limiting their social interaction to apps at the expense of meeting friends "irl"start superscript, 1, end superscript . As more people gain internet access, those who think about the public good ask whether social networks will lead to less social interaction in real life. They also ask whether social media will unite us or instead divide us into groups with less contact and increasingly polarized views of each other. What is the future of collective learning? Maybe you can play a role in answering that question.
Author bios
Andalusia Knoll Soloff is a multimedia journalist based in Mexico City whose work has been published by Al Jazeera,Teen Vogue, Democracy Now!, VICE News, BBC, NBC, The Intercept, and Latino USA, among other outlets. Her reporting focuses on human resilience and dignity in the face of disappearances, state violence, land struggles and gender-based murders in Latin America. Knoll Soloff is the author of the graphic novel Alive You Took Them, about the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students.
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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