How Covid-19 Made Social Media More Tribal


Social media doodles elements


Media theorist Marshall McLuhan suggested that each media-related extension of man comes at the expense of another organ. For example, by increasing reliance on visual media, we lose touch with oral communication.

McLuhan also formulated the laws of media which states that all media aim to extend the body, and when they do so some media become obsolete, some get revived and when a new medium is pushed to its limits, it reverts to an early version.

McLuhan’s theories take on a new significance as we witness a reversion of social media, which I refer to as “tribal media.” By this, I mean media that reflects a fragment of a society consisting of like-minded people within specific political, economic, cultural and personal parameters.

Social media has now been around for two decades, and has been treated with ambivalence since its inception. The global COVID-19 pandemic may have pushed social media to its limits, and reverted it to an earlier version: chatrooms.

Until a few years ago, one of the greatest worries about the internet was how addictive it could be. However, when we studied the relationship between screen addiction and stress, we found a silver lining: There was a possibility that addiction to screens helped reduce the emotional burden of other stressors, such as financial worries or relationship problems.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a different consideration of whether or not social media use produced stress and anxiety. Those who were searching for the potential harms of screen addiction on brain development now had to contend with life and work activities moving online.

Pandemic reversal

In March 2020, our research team used the occasion of the pandemic to explore whether social media causes or relieves stress. We asked respondents about the change in their patterns of different media usage as a result of the pandemic. One year later, we repeated the same question. What we found was a significant change in the nature of people’s interactions with social media — users avoided what was perceived as sensational and political content, but gravitated towards building community.

We observed this trend in another independent analysis of how older adults used social media and communications technology to cope with public health measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We found that, for them, social media and new platforms such as Zoom were important only in as far as they connected them to their own families and communities.

The pandemic made social media and communication platforms the inevitable extension of us. But by bringing us into this forced global embrace, it may have also forced us to split along tribal divisions — what anthropologist Gregory Bateson refers to as schismogenesis. These divisions occur because of, and are exacerbated by, increasing conflict in communications about contentious topics such as lockdowns and mandatory vaccinations…
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Researcher, Director of Media-Health/Game-Clinic laboratory, Concordia University. Naj is a research associate at McGill University (McGill Centre for Integrative Neuroscience) and Concordia University (engAGE Centre for Studies in Aging). For her research, she has received funding from FRQSC-AUDACE. She is the founding director of Media Health Laboratory and the Game Clinic, which are dedicated to examining the implications of new media technologies in public health.
Twitter Spaces is an example of how a social media platform has reverted to an earlier version of online social communication.

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