The role of informatics in the development of social networks and their impact on society


These years, when it comes to “social network”, people will first think of those giant companies, such as Facebook and Twitter. In China, they are WeChat and Sina Weibo. However, none of those will be heard if we go back just a decade ago. Owing to the development of informatics, these booming industries are able to grow up in such an amazing speed.

“Social network” is not a newly-come word. But it is used more frequently these years. Actually, when people only have dumb phones, there is no “social network” in the true sense. People contact each other just by phone calls and short messages, not to mention that this is restrained with only friends or acquaintances. However, nowadays we can easily get to know new friends by your old friends through “friends recommendation/follows” function that most social software applications have. Such a complicated relationship in daily life finally qualifies for the name of “network”.

There is a critical reason why social networks develop so quickly. And I believe it’s the desire for companionship and recognition. The need for them is far from being satisfied, especially in 21 century. With the development of science and technology, simple labor is gradually eliminated or replaced by robots. Even for advanced labor, they still have to keep learning new skills to face the challenging times. It was the best of times because they have a chance to achieve the unprecedented success; it was the worst of times because they are under the unprecedented pressure at the same time.

In China, live streaming video platforms are very popular recently. Some people just eat lunch in front of a webcam and there will be tens of thousands people watching and chatting. Another significant change is the rising of barrage (bullet screening) video sites. On those websites, people are never tired of joining the conversation with other anonymous by texting. They really lack spiritual companionship and recognition from the external world.

There are many good aspects of the development of social networks.

With Sina Weibo listed on Nasdaq in the spring of 2014, China has entered an era of self-media. People can talk about and comment on social events. Such discourse right is not available in traditional ways of media. Compared with traditional media, social networks are much faster in transferring information because of the popularity of smartphones. Anyone can post or get messages no matter when and where. Some people even find their long-lost siblings by social networks.

Sometimes, photos or videos of people’s uncivilized behaviors could be posted on social networks such as Sina Weibo. And by reading comments, you can see overwhelming criticism came from anonymous people almost instantaneously. I believe that the criticism can not only help the uncivilized person to behave himself, but also remind us of being a civilized person. Last year in China, 71 high-level government officials were exposed on social networks because of their scandals. And there is no doubt that this can lead to a cleaner government.

However, the bad aspects of social networks also cannot be ignored.

First, some people’s prejudices and ignorance can be really harmful through the amplification of online world. People seem to be more mean and sarcastic on social networks than in real life because of the anonymity and equality, which are two key features of social networks. In 2010, a young college freshman, Tyler Clementi, from Rutgers University committed suicide. He was secretly webcammed by his roommate while being intimate with another man. When the incident started spreading on social networks, the ridicule and cyberbullying ignited. A few days later, Tyler jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death. The consequence is too dire to accept.

Second, humans are fallible. However, in such a special era, people may not be forgiven so easily. If you made a mistake and happened to be recorded and posted on social networks, consequences may be far beyond what you can bear. That’s because this kind of humiliation will be amplified and uncontained through social networks. What’s worse, it can be permanently accessible.

Third, there are many so-called scientific articles on social networks which are actually not authenticated by experts and some of them are even completely rumors. In China, WeChat is where most rumors came from. Considering the fact that WeChat has become the most popular software on smartphones using by hundreds of millions of people, the consequences can be very bad without serious supervision.

In the process of the development of social networks, we have to face plenty of challenges. The primary challenge is the vast amounts of data. Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003, according to Schmidt, former CEO of Google. Therefore, we need to deal with problems about how we can store so much information with safety and efficiency. And this leads to the study of databases. Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce company, has developed a distributed, shared-nothing relational database named OceanBase to cope with “Double 11”. Every year’s November 11th is Chinese shopping carnival (Chinese call it “Double 11”), same as Black Friday in western countries. Last year, the final trading volume of Alibaba reached 91.217 billion yuan on that day. And it cannot be done without an ultra-high-performance database.

Since we have stored these data, we need to know how to interpret and use these data. And then we have to conduct data analysis related studies. More and more fields in informatics start to be studied with the rising of social networks.

All in all, informatics is the mother of modern social networks. Due to the rapid development of informatics, information is able to spread at an unprecedented speed, which is the precondition of modern social networks. However, the relationship between them is becoming increasingly complicated. Without the rapid development of social networks, some fields in informatics, such as database, cloud computing and natural language processing will not be studied so far, especially in such a fast speed. In addition, without the rapid development of informatics, social networks will not have such a good user experience and thus won’t be so popular.