Social Media: Shaping The Way We See the World or Shaping the New World Itself?

The rise of the Internet has spurred the development of web-based communication platforms. Digital platforms have been growing stronger throughout the last decade, facilitating the exchange of information. Online content has undergone a transformation from being a source of raw data to also becoming an interactive tool, enabling the public to collaborate on projects through the exchange of knowledge and opinions.

As a result, consumers of information have now also become producers of information. People with common interests organise online groups and societies in which every participant can contribute by using social tools such as social networks, videos, blogs and photo-blogging to establish common ground. The Internet enables any person to influence public opinion, creating inclusiveness and a new dimension for public relations.

Social media has established new ways of communicating and creating perceptions between businesses and consumers, organisations and their audiences, political offices and their electorate.

Though in Kazakhstan the development of online platforms began comparatively recently, they have already achieved some success. If in the past locals were turning to Russian and European platforms, now both the quality and quantity of national products have improved.

Among the most popular of Kazakhstan’s blogging platforms are Yvision (www.yvision.kz) and Gonzo (www.gonzo.kz), good examples of the new online presence of Kazakhstan. A study of their content, and of the content of countless other blog platforms, demonstrates the diversity of interests of Kazakhstan’s online society. The first pages of these platforms cover issues of poverty, adoption, design, current events, trip reports and more. This kaleidoscope of themes was created by users themselves and each topic will find its audience.

The other famous platform is Voxpopuli (www.voxpopuli.kz), the philosophy of which could be stated as, “It’s better to see.” Voxpopuli specialises in photo essays. Great pictures depict hidden fears and obscure issues, and at the same time show beautiful captured moments. On this platform, photos give the audience a chance to form personal opinions based on what they see.

Among the newcomers to this online world is Blogbasta (www.blogbasta.kz), a moderated platform of entries and comments on the most current political, social, cultural and economic trends.

And, most certainly, the people in Kazakhstan has taken to globally and regionally popular social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Moi Mir and others. While the penetration and attractiveness of these media differ according to people’s age, preference and social activity, the general trend is pointing towards ever increasing growth of Kazakhstan users on these networks. At that, the Kazakh-speaking ones, i.e. the ones offering their consumers a chance to navigate the functionalities in Kazakh, have recently seen the most dynamic growth.

Of course, to attract audience attention, websites tend to raise issues of widespread concern.

Our perception of the world is based on the information we obtain. The media provide us with news of events happening beyond our immediate surroundings and though situations around the world are touched upon, the topics shown are chosen by editors. Media and public opinion have always been connected, as the media play a significant role in mass communication and reflect issues of the greatest concern to a particular society. With the increasing role of the media in shaping public opinion, it has become more commercialised on one side and has experienced more limitations and restrictions on the other. Raw information evolves into perceptions based on that information. Thus any opinion formed on the basis of a news outlet could be considered as having been shaped under the influence of external sources.

Public opinion is a question to be explored. In some cases, it’s subject to constant fluctuation; in others, public opinion is more solid and stable, based on traditional thought processes. In sum, it could be defined as ideological consent, where the opinion of the majority is dominant and leading so as to influence that of the community in which it exists.

With social media, persuading the public and influencing opinions have become more achievable and, yet, more uncontrollable.

Content presented through social media does not have to have approval to be published, which is positive in the sense that it can contravene censorship and control. On the other hand, this freedom creates new issues for the governmental affairs area of public relations. Social media platforms have thus become autonomous participants in building and influencing democratic societies. Everyone can be engaged in the decision-making process.

Digitalised communication has made the management of organisations and institutions more transparent. It has personalised the images of companies and governments and created new, more human, participative and socially directed images for them.

For the last five or six years, Kazakhstan’s government has been enhancing its online presence. Now, almost all ministries and agencies have websites. President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the Presidential Administration provide data on decrees, meetings, and other important activities of the president at www.akorda.kz. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs lists the latest news as well as useful information on obtaining visas and Kazakhstan’s embassy contacts abroad at www.mfa.kz. One of the most popular governmental websites is www.e-gov.kz, which has data on taxation, laws and regulations and more information to make the lives of citizens more convenient.

Previously, governments and their agencies have used digital technologies like websites to provide information about themselves. With time, governmental websites evolved from being online news services and data providers to becoming sources with active content supplemented by podcasts and real-time data. In sum, online services created what is now called e-government. With growing social media consumption, e-governments enhanced their communication with the public through blogs, social networks and other online software.

Another positive development is the existence of personal blogs by governmental officials, first implemented by former Prime Minister Karim Massimov (who now serves as chief of staff to the President), whose blog received widespread support and penetration. Now, when citizens have issues or concerns, they have a way of contacting the responsible official directly. This kind of direct contact can help society in various ways: decreasing corruption through transparency, increasing convenience along with reducing costs or preventing the misuse of public funds. Thus, social media “socialises” the government by changing its image from being something ephemeral to something more concrete and human.

All in all, social media create new virtual worlds and new realities in all aspects of social life. These are new realities of ever-changing opinions, realities no one can fully control, realities demanding continuous online presence to respond adequately.

Social media has an influence on society. Though short-term values do not replace long-term ones, they can corrupt traditional perceptions of relationships and lifestyles. They have little influence on long-term politics, though politics manages directions of social development by introducing programmes which affect lifestyles in the long-term.

From an economic standpoint, social media have become a new model of low-cost production, since to post content online is in most cases free. At the same time, with developed directories and high traffic, producers are able to earn fortunes from advertising revenues. In other words, social media platforms offer opportunities for high returns from low investments.

From a cultural point of view, social media platforms, with their availability of information and opinions, do not promote long-term values. Moreover, they erode traditional values by offering short-term alternatives.

From a social standpoint, the new media affects relationships through changing people’s perceptions. Individuals are fragmented according to their interests and concerns. Users come together for short periods to protest or solve issues that concern them, but once any problems are solved, users no longer remain together.

Social media platforms are often marketing tools, established to create opinions and to persuade the public to take particular actions. When the action is completed, the group collapses and does not rise again until the next crisis.

But in the end, does democracy online reflect democracy offline, or is it a path to chaos? A conflicting set of opinions will never be satisfied by the same action. Only what is perceived as the opinion of the majority will be taken into consideration. But who shapes that opinion? Are we approaching the moment when social-media-influenced public opinion can dramatically influence and change society itself? Or are we already past this stage as many observers have claimed that the social media had played a key role in the so called Arab Spring chain of revolutions?

With the new social media, the old limiting factors – time, distance, nationality, and ideology – are gone. If public opinion can be influenced, so can societies. Social media is a unique global phenomenon whose true reach and potential to affect not only short term, but also long term change can only be understood better as time progresses. In its turn, Kazakhstan, with its ever growing Internet penetration and usage, is among those countries where social media-related developments are progressing with the breath-taking speed.