Social media is steadily moving from the fringes of urban middle class self-indulgence to the mainstream of daily life.
It is the first place most people go to on waking up in the morning.
Every major corporate brand now must have a presence of some kind on these platforms.
Bars, restaurants, night clubs, sports, health and members’ clubs have opening and closing hours. They are confined to particular locations.
Social networks are the one ecosystem that is open and operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
They are the place on which the usually splintered and scattered society is not just brought together, but now lives, communicates and belongs together more or less continually.
There is no more the feeling of being in the city and others being in smaller upcountry towns. Geography and distance have been replaced by a feeling of being in the same place along with thousands of other people.
Page one of the national mood and direction is still set by that is known as “traditional” media. Most people still glance at the front page of the newspapers or tune in to the radio and TV news at the top of the hour to find out what is making the national news.
If the mainstream news outlets like newspapers, TV and radio stations still determine the top stories of the day, then social media is the features page of the newspaper and feature of TV.
It is the place where the national news is discussed, distributed and the beat of daily, ordinary life happens.
Without the traditional mediums of TV, radio and newspapers, society would be left clueless about what’s going on. Life would become like a public holiday when nothing seems to happen because government offices are closed.
What social media has made possible, though, is in giving the news, entertainment and discussion a greater reach and lifespan than would normally have happened.
The major newspapers dominate the print readership, but through shared links, news and feature stories from smaller newspapers that would have gone unnoticed by the general reader come to the public’s attention this way.
There is a general complaint that the free sharing and reading of news on websites and on social platforms has affected the circulation of newspapers.
While that is true, these social platforms have also given the news a longer lifespan.
Where before the lifespan of a newspaper was the 24 hours in which it was published, now because of the many discussion groups in WhatsApp and on Facebook and the general sharing on these and other social platforms like Twitter, a news item can expect to remain topical for at least four days.
Most people now no longer need to go and look for the news; the news comes looking for them, flowing down their Twitter and Facebook news feeds.
The arrival of Internet-enabled phones (more commonly known as smartphones) has taken the Internet away from its former location on office and Internet café desktop computers and made it mobile.
The world is now in the palm of our hands or in our pockets.
This is part of the reason why on average most newspapers have 20 times more Facebook followers than the number of people who buy the print editions.
Where in the 1980s and 1990s, the public used to complain about sending in letters to the editor or commentary but they were not published, social media is a giant letters to the editor and op-ed page.
The most vocal and active social media users have become opinion leaders and columnists like those in the traditional papers.
The best of all about social media, the most outstanding of these being the largest one Facebook, is in revolutionising publishing and distribution.
Self-publishing is now possible for everyone, be it books, poems, news commentary, photos, video and art.
The bigger a media brand is, the more it finds social media a problem or a threat, but the smaller a brand, person, newspaper, magazine, music band, film or documentary company, the more social media is a blessing.
However, as with all things that involve society on a mass scale, there are problems with social media and some will become quite serious as time goes by.
My initial frustration with social media was the utter carelessness in the writing and the generally poor quality of video and photos.
Even when prompted in the comments and posting section by underlined red to indicate typos, spelling or grammatical errors, most people don’t even seem to notice that.
In Uganda, at least and other East African countries, most people do not seem to have a sense of what makes a clear, quality photo and what does not.
Even women who usually are more image-conscious than men, the shoddy quality of photos they post in their profile and cover picture sections do not seem to bother them at all.
Never has there been an abundance of photos in human history; at the same time never has the quality of personal photography been as poor as it is today.
But these have become the least of my irritation with the medium. We have a huge problem looming for society.
The tendency on social media is: comment first, then think later about what one has just written.
On these platforms, millions of people are at their most natural and uninhibited.
They write, comment and share as they please.
We now run the risk of social media becoming a kind of newspaper of record because of its influence.
What is said about you on social media will tend to become the permanent image or perception society has of you.
Companies are already starting to get worried about what their employees will discuss online and what business secrets they could unwittingly reveal in a moment of posting comments while enjoying a beer.
Civil servants who once were sworn to official secrecy and discreet work are now part of this social experience and anything could come of it if they start speaking carelessly.
The work of public relations managers is now much harder, with information flowing back and forth in real time and there is no way to know everything being discussed about one’s company or institution.
Marriages and relationships are breaking up over suspicious profile pictures and private messages in inboxes.
When these weaknesses and threats inherent in social media reach a critical mass, who is going to do the damage control?
Facebook and Google are now struggling to locate and ban “fake news” from their networks but it is difficult to do this.
Might we get to the point where the present carefree atmosphere online is replaced by stricter terms and conditions, perhaps the minimum age raised from 18 to 21?
I don’t know. But it is scary what awaits us.
Facebook: Kampala Express