Back in 2012, Social Media Today published an article that asked the question: "Is social media a good thing or a bad thing?" The question was then addressed in the broadest possible manner. Is it good for individuals? It is good for society? Is it good for the economy?
The post still gets views every month, which suggests that the question "Is social media good or bad?" is still being typed into Google.
Last year, I was a guest lecturer for a class on business communications and we talked about the utopian vision of the Internet vs. the cynics view of the Internet.
First we talked about how the Internet has provided unprecedented access to information. Anyone with a mobile phone has access to more information that than anyone at any other time in history.
As well, it has democratized the public forum; anyone can write a blog post and contribute their voice to the public debate. Anyone is an author. The editor is no longer the gatekeeper.
This Utopian vision was what the creators of the Internet seem to have intended. It was a communication tool with grand progressive social implications.
"The amount of digital information increases tenfold every five years... Moreover, there are now many more people who interact with information. Between 1990 and 2005 more than 1 billion people worldwide entered the middle class. As they get richer they become more literate, which fuels information growth." - The Economist
Then there is the cynical vision of the Internet: It has been suggested that 80% of images on the Internet are of naked people. A lot of it is bad advertising. Or live journals written by 13 year olds. It's rumor and slander. No one fact checks it. People lie.
As content creators, which Internet do we want to help build? The Utopian one? Or the other one? And is social media, at core, good for us or bad for us?
Argument 1: Social Media is Essentially Good
Social media connects us meaningfully to other people. Human happiness is very strongly influenced by our social ties. We need our family and friends.
In the original article on Social Media Today, Syed Noman Ali wrote, "Social networks has provided us the opportunity to connect with people and build better relationships with friends with whom we are unable to meet personally, and let them know about our life and take input about their lives and events happening with them."
People are more and more mobile, moving for jobs, living far from their families, so technology that helps bridge the social gap created by the modern economy is useful. We build and maintain relationships on social media.
Just like with the Internet at large, social media makes it so that anyone can contribute their voice to public debate. And anyone can have their voice amplified by social media networks. This multiplicity of voices has the potential to deepen our understanding of the issues of the day. No longer are outsider voices silenced. No longer are the elite the only ones who get a say in creating a dialogue about the most important ideas.
Social media and other communications technology has made it so that work can be done anywhere in the world. Thomas Friedman makes this argument in "The World is Flat."
"In his book, The World is Flat, Freidman recounts a journey to Bangalore, India, when he realized globalization has changed core economic concepts. In his opinion, this flattening is a product of a convergence of personal computer with fiber-optic micro cable with the rise of work flow software. He termed this period as Globalization 3.0, differentiating this period from the previous Globalization 1.0 (in which countries and governments were the main protagonists) and the Globalization 2.0 (in which multinational companies led the way in driving global integration).
Friedman recounts many examples of companies based in India and China that, by providing labor from typists and call center operators to accountants and computer programmers, have become integral parts of complex global supply chains for companies such as Dell, AOL, and Microsoft. Friedman's capitalist peace theory called Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention is discussed in the book's penultimate chapter." - Summary of "The World is Flat"
Social media is a channel that allows companies to communicate with consumers is a more personalized way. Because it is a two-way communication channel, consumers can learn about a company's products or services, and at the same time companies can learn about a consumer's preferences and needs. Thus messaging can be better targeted at what consumers really want.
Argument 2: Social Media is Essentially Bad
Social media has some serious repercussions on productivity. People are using social media while they are supposed to be working.
In the original article on Social Media Today, Syed Noman Ali wrote, "Nucleus Research reported that Facebook shaves 1.5% off office productivity while Morse claimed that British companies lost $2.2 billion a year to the social phenomenon."
How much productivity is being lost to social media?
"In its annual Wasting Time at Work Survey, Salary.com reported that 89 percent of respondents admitted that they waste time at work each day. A small percentage even admitted they waste at least half of an eight-hour workday on nonwork-related tasks.
For the 61 percent who admit to wasting 30 minutes to an hour, the lost productivity may not seem like a big deal. But for a small-business owner, even 30 minutes each day adds up to 2.5 hours a week and 130 hours each year." - Inc. Magazine
However you do the math, it's a lot.
Social media can be addictive and have the same consequences as other additions for some people. A lot of people look at their mobile when they wake up. It turns out that logging into Facebook can provide our brains with a influx of dopamine, just like alcoholic gets when she drinks a martini.
Luckily, for most of us, our relationship with social media augments our lives, but for some it can be a problem.
"27 percent of consumers admit they check social networks as soon as they wake up, and 51 percent continue to log in periodically throughout the day... Researchers from the University of California and University of Rochester found that if individuals 'psychological needs were deprived,' a fear of missing out also provided the temptation of writing and checking text messages and e-mails while driving." -CMS Wire
Social media has caused, in a sense, the death of privacy. Not only do your friends and family know everything about you, so does any company that can pay for your data.
"Unlike in a democracy, Facebook is unilaterally redefining the social contract-making the private now public and making the public now private. Private information about people is readily available to third parties. At the same time, public institutions, such as the police, use social networks to privately undertake activities that previously would have been subject to public oversight. Even though cops can't enter a home without a warrant, they scrutinize Facebook photos of parties held at high school students' homes. If they see the infamous red plastic cups suggesting that kids are drinking, they prosecute the parents for furnishing alcohol to minors." - Lori Andrews in "Social Networks and the Death of Privacy: I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did."
Trolls. Social media and the Internet at large open us up to criticism from anonymous trolls.
"As part of the BBC documentary Panorama, a reporter tracked down a troll in Cardiff, Wales, who goes by the handle Nimrod Severn. His real names is Darren Burton, and he has a taste for commenting on memorial pages set up on Facebook to honor those who have died... Charming." - Gizmodo
On the flip-side, mistakes we make on social media might cause us to be publicly shamed.
"The First Amendment protects a lot of abhorrent speech, but societies have always resorted to some form of vigilante justice to preserve widely known and observed rules of social conduct that don't result in a crime when they're broken. So we turn instead to public humiliation, an organic form of social control that never really went away completely, as evidenced by the occasional signboard-bearing ne're-do-well on the nightly news. Publicity-seeking judges occasionally will expose deadbeat dads, public urinators, drunk drivers and repeat drug offenders. But these are outliers. We don't prop people up in public, brand them with scarlet letters or hurl spoiled produce." - The Nation
Shall we just say that the jury is still out? I'd love to expand this article if you have ideas to add in the comments section.