Prof. Abdullah Al-Kindi: Using research to invest in social media opportunities
- 1999 saw the advent of mass use of social media platforms in the Sultanate.
- Social media platforms have positive and negative impact on traditional media.
- As journalists become more capable of addressing sensitive and previously silenced issues, the space for freedom expands.
- Relevant courses are offered by Mass Communication Department and some 15 studies were conducted by postgraduate students.
- Researchers should understand the theoretical and research frameworks of media development
The results of a survey published by the Center for Statistics and Information recently showed that the average daily use of Omani social media platforms among Omanis was six hours, a reality that shows the extent of the spread of such media platforms among different segments of the society.
Although these widespread media platforms will have direct and indirect benefits, both on the individual and society at large, they will, nonetheless, result in possible problems that require studies that explain them and offer solutions to reduce their negative effects.
Since SQU enjoys a sound research environment, social media, as a research theme, has been researched from various angles by its researchers and academics. In the following interview with Dr. Abdullah bin Khamis Al-Kindi, Professor of Journalism and Electronic Publishing in the Department of Mass Communication, there will be more discussion about these media platforms, the impact of their spread, and important studies conducted at the University.
- How did social media platforms emerge and what was the factor behind their spread?
Social media is part of an information and communication revolution that has swept the world since the mid-1950s. This has been called by some researchers as the century of technological revolution. At that time, too, the term "global village" was created by Canadian communication scientist Marshall McLuhan, who predicted that the coming communication technology would lead to an unprecedented convergence of people, and that the media would exploit such technology. The effects of the technological revolution were more evident in the 21st century in the form of software and applications with which mass media crossed temporal and spatial boundaries. It should be noted here that the first experiments and applications of the Internet began in the 1960s; it was the starting point for all communication applications we see today.
The Internet has been the driving force behind all products of the contemporary information revolution. From my point of view, its significance and pivotal role are similar to that of the printing press. Invented in the fifteenth century by the German inventor Johannes Gutenberg, the world began a comprehensive enlightenment movement that led to major and huge cultural changes worldwide. In line with the importance of the printing press, McLuhan called one of his 1962 books Gutenberg Galaxy. On the other hand, we can call our planet "Internet Galaxy”, recognizing the status of this network and its importance in the various communication applications that mankind uses today and heavily depends on for so many things. Some imagined that since the end of the 20th century, we have been living in a new age called "the era of electronic colonization" by the communication scientist Thomas McPhail.
- When did these media platforms appear in the Sultanate, and did they expand?
The emergence of social media as virtual networks has been associated with two generations of technologies known as Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, the latter being the most powerful and influential. Tim Orly defines them as the second generation of Internet sites and services that have transformed the Internet into an operating platform rather than merely sites; they depend on social networks, applications, and pages that can be modified by the visitor, and allow users to interact with each other. Globally, Classmates, founded in 1995, is the first virtual network, followed by Six Degrees.com in 1997. The most popular virtual networks in the world today emerged between 2002-2005. Facebook appeared in 2004, YouTube 2005, and Twitter 2006.
In Oman, the use of these networks began in the form of open electronic forums in 1999, and then as personal blogs for individuals, while the most popular social media platforms today such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter were widely used in the Sultanate in 2011. Some international statistics estimate the number of Internet users in the Sultanate in January 2019 at roughly 3.780,000, i.e. 77% of the total population. Facebook tops as the most widely used social media platform in the Sultanate, with some 1,800,000 users out of the total number of Internet users in the Sultanate, followed by Instagram with 1,200,000, and Twitter about 882,000,000 (Hootsuite. We are social).
As to the positive or negative impact the social media platforms can have, that could be related to the number of active users or members, quality of topics, and degree of credibility from time to time. In the Sultanate, as in many other countries, the number of users has been increasing and their use is expanding in the fields of education, business, and other services. However, in the Sultanate, social media platforms have not yet been used at their peak, because the number of active users who have serious topics remains small and modest. Most of them become negative consumers of such media and their topics. Their role is limited to republishing, liking, or even following posts without engagement. The idea of peak usage, and when a community or even an individual consumer reaches it, is not clear nor measurable or able to be determined formally or rigorously, because the media are constantly changing and renewable in terms of time and topics. By their very nature, they don’t indicate to the users when the peak of usage starts or ends.
- How did social media platforms influence traditional public and private media outlets, and can we say that they have become an alternative?
I think they have both positive and negative effects on the traditional ones. On the positive side, social media platforms may increase the competition between old and new means of communication, which helps to cater to the media message in terms of quality, diversification, multiplicity and achieving its goals to win more people. This positive impact requires a deeper understanding of the characteristics of such media and the nature of their access and impact. On the negative side, I think social media has been pulling a large segment of the public who can see social media as their own space and even their individual means of dialogue with other segments of the public. This shift will not, over time, be in favor of the traditional media, which will lose the loyalty of an audience that trusts its message. Consequently they lose more advertisers whose relations with the media generally relate to their public presence, influence, and credibility. For the advertiser, advertising in terms of communication and administration is related to the level of strength and presence of the media and not a charity or free support grant to help this medium or the other to survive and continue.
- There are those who believe that such media platforms will open up a window of freedom that may be absolute and uncontrollable. What do you think? How can this be proved otherwise?
In my view, the term “absolute freedom” in the use of traditional media has been and remains controversial, problematic, and relative from one society to another, and from one culture to another, in addition to being unrealistic in practice and action. What happens is that freedom is a ceiling that rises or narrows with certain practices, events, issues, and the level of initiatives of media practitioners. In the language of physics of "ideas", the more journalists can make unprecedented initiatives and raise sensitive and previously silenced issues, the greater the space for freedom, but that does not mean reaching the absolute, which is usually not attained by those who deal with ideas, which are not absolute. When contemporary social media platforms spread, many users and activists believed in the idea of "absolute freedom", simply because they found more space. The use and expansion of this space should be encouraged today, but with basic rules relating to the rights and duties of individuals towards one another, the conditions for coexistence that preserve social peace, and the protection of the society against the spread of crime in all its forms. We can bet on the triad of “education”, “community awareness” and “the system of laws and regulations” to get more benefits than the space offered by social media platforms today and tomorrow.
- What practices should the public and private bodies adopt to keep up with such media?
Indicators confirm that the official and non-official institutions in the Sultanate have recently intensified their reliance on social media, with many having accounts to reach out to the public; but the degree of usage, the topics that are raised in such networks, and the level of interaction of such institutions with those topics … all of that is determined by each institution. This is expected and will grow further in the future as more experience and increased confidence are attained. At the regulatory and legislative levels, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has taken effective measures to develop the legal and regulatory frameworks for the operation and management of such media, as well as collaborating with the Information Technology Authority in raising awareness of the risks or disadvantages of using social media, especially among children.
- Could you highlight the efforts made by the Department of Mass Communication concerning teaching and researching social media, and what are the most important studies done by the Department’s academics and postgraduate students?
The Department offers a Bachelor’s program that includes some courses related to social media, but there is no full and independent program in this area. Considering that such media are closely related to traditional ones such as journalism, radio, television, public relations activities, and advertising, it is possible to consider increasing the courses in social media and their applications related to traditional media instead of majoring in social media. Regarding research, postgraduate students have produced about 15 Master's theses on social media and relevant phenomena at the national level. This area of research is attractive to students and researchers, considering the issues and phenomena associated with it are new and original. They also have ramifications on institutions, individuals, and the media in general. Some of the fellow professors in the Department have also published research in this field. For the past two years, I have been involved in a strategic research project, funded by His Majesty’s Trust Fund Grant for supporting research, entitled "The impact of social media on Omani youth". In addition to qualitative analysis of such impact, the study will produce results of a quantitative survey of the effects of social media on a sample of Omani youth representing all governorates in the country. This strategic research is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.
- In your opinion, how can research provide solutions to the negative effects on the various aspects of society?
The primary goal of research is to investigate various phenomena, both old and new, the latter being more important because of their direct effects on individuals. As I mentioned earlier, social media is a new and evolving field of research together with the various ramifications of its use. Hence, research plays a key role in addressing such phenomena and helping the community, both individuals and institutions, to develop the means for using social media for a better life. Research institutions and centres need to support researchers to study such phenomena, given their intensity, rapid development, and seriousness of some of them to individuals and communities. When considering the intensification of research in this area, one should not only focus on the negative impact, but also consider the use of research to exploit the opportunities offered by social media platforms in different areas of life such as education, innovation, business, services and health, among others. Nor should the opportunities offered by these media platforms be ignored.
- What tools and skills should researchers on the effects of social media have in order to achieve real results?
As researchers and students, we need to understand the theoretical and research frameworks of the development of social media platforms, now that some of them are still being formed and constructed. We also need to keep abreast of the global research findings and develop our skills in data collection, analysis, and interpretation.
- Given the proliferation of social media, especially among youth in our society, is there any future horizon for them? Will you expect other media forms to emerge from them, or will they continue in terms of diversity?
I think that social media platforms are the reality today, therefore we should deal with them and develop our skills to better use them. We should also teach the usage rules and mechanisms to our children in schools and universities and develop their skills in this regard. Being the reality today, they will be the future as well. Communication and technology scientists expect that social media platforms are likely to increase and replicate in the future and become more capable in penetrating various aspects of our lives.
- How do you see the future of Omani media in general with such growing media forms?
Nowadays, social media platforms are part of the media landscape in the world, which includes the Sultanate. While these media did not – and cannot – abolish the traditional ones, they have changed them dramatically and will continue to change or influence them in different ways. I see the future of the Omani media in understanding the phenomenon of media convergence and its virtual applications, gradually eliminating the boundaries between the different media, and delivering a message that can reach the public from multiple media forms, because the present and the future refer to the multiplicity of media messages and diversity of sources. The media are no longer those agencies that traditionally produce a printed version that is issued periodically to the reader in specific distribution outlets. Now, there is a printed version, an electronic one, radio, television channel, and accounts on various social media platforms. A mass medium has today become ‘the medium of media’. Accordingly, such media require a multitasking journalist who can work in all of them. Although there are initiatives in Omani media that reflect this understanding of media integration, we need to develop this together with its various applications in the future. Given that ordinary individuals have become media organizations, and that the arena is expanding for many players and “influencers”, we need, in the Sultanate today and in the future, stronger and more professional institutional media versus “the citizen media” that will see more developments in the future. The future remains open to many expectations that need to be pursued, understood and implemented.