Friday, July 01, 2011

Every Rose Has Its Thorn

Every Rose Has Its Thorn
By Tshering Cigay Dorji
Published in Drukpa, December 2010 Issue on Media

Beware the hype of social networking, says Tshering Cigay Dorji, for behind the glitz lies a plethora of unsavory ill-effects and insidious design

Most of the internet-literate Bhutanese have now embraced Facebook, Twitter, blogs or online forums to interact with other people. These internetbased applications of social interaction constitute what is broadly termed as the ‘social media’.

In his e-book titled What is Social Media?, Antony Mayfield describes the following as basic forms of social media: (1) Social networks like Facebook and MySpace, (2) Blogs, (3) Wikis, (4) Podcasts, (5) Forums, (6) Content Communities like Flickr and Youtube, and (7) Microblogging like Twitter.

Why have the social media caught on the imagination of the people at such lightening speed? According to Mayfield, “A good way to think about social media is that all of this is actually just about being human beings. Sharing ideas, cooperating and collaborating to create art, thinking and commerce, vigorous debate and discourse, finding people who might be good friends, allies and lovers – it’s what our species has built several civilizations on. That’s why it is spreading so quickly, not because it’s great shiny, whizzy new technology, but because it lets us be ourselves – only more so.”

Notwithstanding all the hype, the convenience, the empowerment of the voiceless, and the attraction surrounding the social media, there are also some unsavory aspects that need to be understood before plunging ourselves headlong into the social media ocean.

Zero Privacy

Most of us have divulged too much private information about ourselves through the social media sites. Many of us even fail to update and manage the privacy settings provided by the sites leaving our private information searchable and viewable by anyone. For example, when I was studying abroad, an African colleague once bragged about his sexual adventures showing an email on his mobile phone which read, “Hi, I am drinking at a bar in your neighborhood tonight. Can I come and spend the night with you?” I couldn’t help notice the familiar family name of the sender. So, I entered the name into the ‘google’ search engine, which led me to her Facebook page and her identity as none other than the young daughter of an acquaintance.

However, making the privacy settings tight on your profile can only encapsulate your private data at the superficial level from public search engines and other users not connected to you. Not only are our private data completely accessible to the administrators of the social media sites, but we also leave enough digital footprints online for someone who is tech-savvy or hell-bent on tracking us to track us.

Nicholas Carr in his bestseller The Big Switch says, “Most of us assume that we are anonymous when we go about our business online. We treat the internet not only as a shopping mall and a library but as a personal diary and even a confessional. Through the sites we visit and searches we make, we disclose details not only about our job, hobbies, families, politics and health but also about our secrets, fantasies, obsessions, peccadilloes and even, in the most extreme cases, our crimes. But our sense of anonymity is largely an illusion. Detailed information about everything we do online is routinely gathered, stored in corporate or governmental databases, and connected to our real identities, either explicitly through our user names, our credit card numbers, and the IP addresses automatically assigned to our computers or implicitly through our searching and surfing histories.”

In July 2006, AOL had released a report containing keywords entered into its search engines by 657,000 subscribers over a three-month period. The data had been “anonymized” by replacing the names with numbers and removing other identifying information. Three New York Times journalists took a close look at a set of keywords entered by one subscriber known only as “4417749”, and tracked down the real person behind it who happened to be Thelma Arnold, a 62-year old widow living in Lilburn, Georgia.

“As online databases proliferate and analytical technologies advance, it becomes ever easier to use the ‘World Wide Computer’ to ‘mine’ personal information,” says Carr. The loss of privacy is the price we pay for the convenience of social media.

Technology of Control

Internet in general and the social media in particular has been hyped as technology of emancipation. It gives us a lot of freedom to express ourselves and find information on almost any topic imaginable. However, computer systems in general are not technologies of liberation but technologies of control. As the industrial revolution progressed, the ability to process ever-increasing information could not keep up with the ability to process matter and energy. This made it difficult for companies to manage and control their operations effectively. The computer was born out of this necessity.

It is true that the internet or social media put enormous power into the hands of an individual, but it puts even more power into the hands of companies, organizations, institutions and governments. All our online activities like tweeting, searching, commenting, blogging, chatting, clicking and browsing are recorded for analysis in some big databases around the world. Software programs can analyze these records and make out what motivates us, what we believe in, what we like, what we don’t like, what we would buy, how we would react to a certain stimuli, etc. In short, the people behind these software programs could know more about us than we know about ourselves. This could give them immense power to control us.

Governments have realized that the social media tools would not pose as much threat as initially feared. “While the Net offers people a new medium for discovering information and voicing opinions, it also provides bureaucrats with a powerful new tool for monitoring speech, identifying dissidents and disseminating propaganda. In a country like China, anyone who assumes that he can act anonymously on the Web opens himself to dangers far beyond embarrassment,” writes Carr.

Integrator or Divider?

An article titled Global Village or Cyber-Balkans? by Eric Brynjolfsson and Marshall Van Alstyne seriously questioned the na├»ve assumption that social media tools have integrating effects. Since there are “limits to how much information we can process and how many people we can communicate with,” we naturally tend to filter out information we don’t agree with and form online communities with like-minded people. Thus online communities could end up being less diverse and more polarized than communities in the real world. A study of the political blogosphere by Matthew Hindman found that the “vast majority of readers tend to stay within the bounds of either the liberal or the conservative sphere.”

Studies have shown that discussions among liked-minded people produce “ideological amplification.” That means people’s views become more extreme and more entrenched as they discuss issues with other people who hold the same or similar views. It is feared that the formation of online communities by like-minded individuals would “in the worst cases, plant the roots of extremism and even fanaticism and terrorism.”

Relationship Maker or Breaker?

According to The Telegraph, research by a British divorce center called Divorce-Online claims about 20 percent of all divorce documents include some type of reference to Facebook. But the statistic may not be confined to Britain alone. According to USA Today, “66 percent of the lawyers surveyed cited Facebook indiscretions as the source of online evidence, MySpace followed with 15 percent, followed by Twitter at five percent.”

Social networking sites like Facebook have made it very easy for reuniting with old friends and making new ones. This has also tempted individuals to flirt and cheat on their partners. It is especially true for people who have some problems in their marriage. “The popularity of the Friends Reunited website several years ago was also blamed for a surge in divorces as bored husbands and wives used it to contact old flames and first loves,” according to The Telegraph.

Time Waster

Engaging in social media activities could take up a lot of time and it could even make you addicted. Therefore, it is important to ask ourselves what it is that we want to achieve by participating in such sites. The time we spend on social media sites could be spent on more productive activities.

According to a study by The Oxygen Media Insights Group, “57 percent of the women polled said they communicate with people more online than they do face to face, and 39 percent called themselves Facebook addicts. Moreover 34% of those between 18 and 34 said that checking Facebook is the first thing they do in the morning – even before brushing their teeth or using the bathroom.”

However, social media sites could be useful if you are a politician with an agenda to reach out to the people, a researcher connecting with other researchers, a marketing officer or a salesman, or an individual with the need to keep in touch with friends and family separated by distance. The bottom line is that “to use social media effectively, just be sure that you aren’t putting more effort in than the result you’re getting” as the bestselling author of Getting Things Done, Ready for Anything, David Allen says.

Signing Out

It is important to realize the unsavory aspects of social media behind all the hype generated in recent years. No doubt, social media as tools could be useful in many ways in our lives. They empower the voiceless, and bring immediacy and transparency to journalism. But, at the same time, they take away our privacy, make some of us addicted, break marriages, and put immense power into the hands of corporate and government institutions.

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