Social Media and Social Cohesion (Seminar)

A little bit over two weeks ago I attended a week-long seminar – sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW, name dating to 1851 but founded by Louis Bonaparte in 1808) and the Hendrik Muller Fonds – about social media and social cohesion in Amsterdam, in the beautiful Trippenhuis (a Dutch heritage site and former museum, once housing Rembrandt’s ‘The Nightwatch’). 

The ‘Trippenhuis’

Picture by author / CC BY

The ‘Trippenhuis’ is a mansion located in central Amsterdam, dating back to the 1660s, when it was built by two rich traders of weaponry: Louis and Hendrick Trip. In 1812, the predecessor of the KNAW moved into the building, as well as an art dealer named Cornelis Sibelle Roos. Under the rule of King William I, the building was reunited, the Academy renamed and a national museum opened, but due to a rapid growth in size and inventory the museum with its paintings relocated, and eventually moved to the new Rijksmuseum. The academy focused on four classes of arts and sciences, adhering to Louis Napoleon’s classification: Mathematics and Physics; Dutch literature and history; Ancient and Eastern literature, and; History and the Fine Arts. Statues of exemplary representatives of these classes – as decided on by members of the academy – can still be found throughout the building.

The Seminar

As a group of give or take 20 early-career researchers we focused on addressing the impact of the rise of social media and digital technologies on society, its social groups and identity, from the disciplinary perspectives of journalism, political communication, political science, law, religious studies and anthropology. It was both refreshing as well as enlightening to take such a deep look at the phenomena at hand:

  • the digitisation of communication;
  • the fragmentation of news media use and the news media itself – in form and function;
  • the isolation and polarisation of opinion and attitude (in respect to supposedly novel or exacerbated filter bubbles or echo chambers).

And this in relation to social cohesion and the functioning of society, identifying challenges to, for instance:

  • the functioning of the media as the fourth estate;
  • the often-overlooked business interests of social media platforms. These are businesses and do not perform the role or have the responsibilities of the media.
  • political communication at large: the rise of populism and increased concerns about alternative facts and post-truth politics

The takeaway message

We’re seeing, and have been seeing for quite a while, new platforms for communication, with the rise of social media. Technology itself has advanced to such an extent that it permeates our lives. An example of a way in which technology has crept into our daily routine is the tracking app, an app that tracks one’s health, fitness, movement. We submit our information to the app and the app returns data. We need to take into account that these platforms and the functionalities and features that they provide shape our lives and this includes how we communicate. Are we consciously or subconsciously experiencing the supposed social-media and technology-induced phenomena of the polarisation between societal groups, the creation of new identities and presentations of the self, the isolation of opinion and the fragmentation of news media use? More research is needed into the effects of social media and technology on humanity in general, society, and social cohesion in specific.

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