Social Media: The Modern Day Diary

Today nearly 3.5 billion people are actively using social media. On average, people spend over two hours a day on social media apps and have an average of more than seven social media accounts. In the last year alone, social media users have grown by more than 200 million, averaging out to a new user every 6.4 seconds.

Lee Humphreys, Cornell University’s Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) recently sat down with Scott Pesner, Director of Alumni Engagements at CALS, to weigh in on the current impact of social media usage within the historical context of older communication practices.

“When I started studying mobile technologies, phones looked very different than they do today,” admitted Humphreys. “However, even seventeen years ago there were concerns about the ways that mobile phones were making us more narcissistic and ruining face-to-face interactions.”

Yet Humphreys believes that the use of social media isn’t the root of evil, but is relevant to a larger history about the ways that people use media to connect with one another. In many respects, social media is a way of documenting everyday life events.

“I define media accounting as the practices that allow us to document our lives, and the world around us, and share it with others,” Humphreys explains. She gives the example of Twitter, one of the first platforms to offer both a web and mobile version. Originally, Twitter had an 180-character limit so people could share tweets via text message, and the platform was often referred to as a micro-blog.

Looking back at the history of blogging, journaling and diary practices, Humphreys sees similarities between how people are now using Twitter. “I had always thought of diaries as these little notebooks with locks on them into which you pour your innermost thoughts. This is actually a very modern notion of diaries.” Throughout most of the 19th century, Humphreys discovered, people would share their diaries, either sitting down together or mailing back and forth. Friends and family would write in the margins, creating an element of interactivity. Young women would leave their homes to get married and send diaries home as a means of maintaining relationships. Diaries were essentially a social practice of communication.

“I define media accounting as the practices that allow us to document our lives, and the world around us, and share it with others.”

That social practice of communication has evolved into the media seen today. The degree of interactivity has changed significantly; although people would write in the margins of shared diaries, the speed at which people now exchange messages is drastically different than what was achievable through the mail service.

Humphreys defines media accounting as consisting of three different elements: the account, accounting, and accountability. “An account is something that’s tied to an identity; you can think of it like a bank account. Social media is like this, too. Media accounting is also to give one’s account of something. That means you’re giving your subjective version of an event, experience, or activity. Accounting allows us to understand the way that media accounting is used as evidence—for example, a photo of a family looking happy, or a selfie with the Pope to prove you really did meet him.

“The third aspect of media accounting is accountability. When we write something on social media, or write something in a journal, or take a picture and put it in a family photo album, we are accountable for the traces we have created for these media, because there is a potential audience.”

There is research to support that social media is also enabling a good amount of social support. As part of their accounting, people often share difficult events in their lives, and are able to immediately connect with a support network. On the flip side, social media also makes it easy for individuals to compare themselves to one another, and feel as though everyone else has a better life.

When asked about mobile phones and interpersonal relationships, Humphreys talks about a study she conducted on the usage of mobile phones in public. She discovered many people were irritated with their friends for using their phones when they were together. Upon conducting a separate, observational field study where she observed people passively in public spaces, Humphreys found that people tend to only remember extremes. She observed a lot of people integrating mobile phones into their conversation, taking photos or reading posts together.

“In fact, the phone can have a really positive influence,” she concludes. “At the end of the day, modern-day media accounting platforms are bringing people closer together, expanding networks, and creating shareable histories.”

Want to hear more? Watch the original keynote, Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life, here.