Does social media accelerate cultural change?

Regardless of your stance on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or California’s Proposition 8, the pace at which culture has changed in the past several years has been startling. What seemed decades away just a few years ago is suddenly front and center and being decided by U.S. Supreme Court. Public opinion polls have changed significantly leading up to the decision by SCOTUS to hear the case, even though passions remain white-hot on both extremes of the issue. The middle shifted.

Allowing Gays and Lesbians to Marry LegallyIn fact, between 1996 and 2001, support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally rose and then declined, before beginning a slow rise until 2008, when the numbers increased quickly to where we are today with about equal support on both sides.

So how can we attribute the sudden shift in opinion? There hasn’t been a corresponding shift in effort by groups for or against the question. Churches and other groups haven’t necessarily softened their stance. So why the sudden change, especially through an election season that generally brings greater polarization and entrenches opinion?

Social media tectonic shift?

What’s changed in the past four years is the sheer number of people having bi-directional conversation through social media. Strikingly, support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally among senior citizens, shown in the graph as the “Boomer” generation, has risen sharply alongside the rates of the elderly using the Internet and sites like Facebook. It isn’t easy to know if the two correlate but the facts are interesting, to be sure.

So perhaps an interesting effect of the rise of social media is corresponding acceleration of public opinion around key issues of the day. We used to form opinions after listening to a minister, reading the paper and watching the news. The interaction between people was far more limited and there was less ‘cross-wise’ conversation. Our world was much smaller and less interactive.

Cultural Arab Spring?

The question that springs to mind has to be, “What other cultural norms will change in similar fashion and at similar speeds?” There are a host of sensitive topics that have enjoyed majority support that could face new scrutiny as people realize that the conversation can be started and spread very quickly.

The workplace is certainly changing thanks to applications that allow for the same cross-wise collaboration and conversation.

It will be interesting to see what comes next. Here’s a graph of the decline of Applebees, Denny’s and Papa John’s restaurant Buzz score after mixing business with politics in this past election. The single biggest way people found out the politics of the owners? Social media. Beyond cultural change, it creates the rallying point for protest, not much differently than in the Arab World in recent times. The people are talking…

Restaurant scores

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Categories: Social / Collaboration

Author:Jeanne Roué-Taylor

I'm fascinated by disruptive technology and its impact on our world. I manage sales operations for an excellent startup with a unique team of highly experienced data scientists.

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