Twitter caused quite a stir last week.
On the same day that it hit 100 million active users, it was the medium through which hackers posted incorrect, devastating tweets about a terrorist threat on the NBC News account and CBS’s “WhatsTrending” (which CBS dropped soon after) erroneously reported the death of Steve Jobs.
What to make of this? The knee-jerk reaction of a lot of my friends is something along the lines of “Twitter is the devil.”
But I have something to say to them: The devil is the devil, and Twitter is just another way for him to express himself.
Twitter is not to blame for the jerks who tweet misinformation. WhatsTrending is simply an irresponsible information source that doesn’t care or honestly need to confirm “reports” they receive, and the culprits for the 9/11 tweet scam are probably prone to hurtful mischief whether or not Twitter exists.
It’s kind of odd that a negative attitude toward new technology, and social media in particular, is so pervasive in my peers, the people who have grown alongside – and, might I add, helped to dictate – these social media sites and applications.
We have qualms, though, and that intuition is worth exploring, especially since we are categorically and overwhelmingly looking past any hesitation and using the hell out of social media.
After a lot of thought about my own use of social media, I came to two initial conclusions. First, social media are actually quite good, as are most technologies. And second, some of our concerns are legitimate. But as I could have only hoped to come to, these concerns seem to point to a greater lesson to be taken away from all of this.
To expound the first point – that social media is, after all, good – I would like to draw a comparison between the human decision to engage in language and the human decision to engage in social media. I’ve been thinking this through for a while now, and (of course!) one of my classes had to go and accost me with obvious: The current changes in media are truly nothing new. Social media, then, is really just the latest in a long history of innovation in media.
Thinking back, language was one of the first media. This is of particular interest to me because my very first love affair – the one that determined what-I-was-always-going-to-end-up-doing-with-my-life – was language. Mmm. Since my mom started reading to me as a kid, I loved the way that “words kissed paper,” as a high school English teacher and big influence of mine once said.
My understanding of language and its purpose developed, naturally, as I continued to study English in college. My chosen medium – everyone’s – is basic; it’s the transmission of messages over airwaves or by ink. The fundamental act of communication isn’t something that we tend to doubt with any frequency, but it’s prone to the same faults as any other, more complex medium. We can approach language with the same skepticism with which we approach social media. Words themselves can absolutely fail us. They can cause harm, exclude and ostracize. But they can also convey meaning, truth and emotion. They can influence. They can open our eyes and our minds to new information. They can be beautiful.
Can social media do the same? Any message transmitted over any technology ultimately boils down to fundamental human interaction with the world. Is there anything inherently good or bad about interacting with the world? If you reach the same conclusion that I do on this one – that interacting with the world is good (um, why else are we here in this universe?) – then the question becomes: are there certain means and devices for that interaction that are better or worse than others? I say it all depends on us. We make the wheels turn. They are just there waiting for us to push.
In social media, there is plenty of opportunity for positive use. While we might hesitate, for whatever reason, to admit our dependence on and relationship with social media, it’s there.
I’ll say it: I have maintained richer, more fluid friendships thanks to Facebook. And I don’t think that makes me a socially depraved person. In fact, I think that my social skills and abilities inform my social media skills and abilities. I’m not good at using Facebook because I suck at being a friend; I’m good at using Facebook because I’m good at being a friend to begin with. I value keeping in touch and sharing photos and jokes. Facebook just offers me another way to do that.
This is good news for those who might feel held back by generational or cultural gaps. Individuals don’t have to be born into using social media to be good at making them work, just as individuals don’t have to grow up speaking English to be excellent orators or writers of the language.
In fact, I think the wiser the individual, the more capable they will be at using the tool, independent of experience.
So all of this seems great, but I admitted earlier that social media isn’t all peaches. It’s very easy to figure out what the dark side of social media is. The questions “what don’t you want to share with everyone in the world?” and “what don’t you want everyone in the world sharing with you?” are a good place to start.
I’ll go first, if you all promise to comment and add to the list: (Pipe dream, I know. Jerks.)
Information that will cost me money or respect in the future. Competitive information (for me, this could mean a brilliant article idea or turn of phrase that I don’t want some schmuck ripping off). Evidence of drunken, foolish, etc. behavior, unflattering photos, medical records, financial records, sexual and/or relationship history, nudity, driving record (It’s not bad, OK, it’s just that as a female driver who thinks very highly of my driving abilities – I should point out that I can parallel park like a mofo – I don’t want the naysayers knowing about a few mishaps). Other weaknesses, for that matter.
I’ll group this batch of social media dark matter under the title “privacy.”
The other place where I see social media becoming problematic is in “consumption” – of our time. My favorite way of putting this is to reference Rome (and I apologize for what is sure to be some serious sidetracking).
Back in the glory of ancient Rome, when law, politics, art, architecture, philosophy and society in general were in many ways flourishing, there was this pockmark on a great civilization, a stadium of distraction for the masses known famously as the Coliseum. Nowadays we are slightly less barbaric: We have sports and celebrity gossip … and social media. Social media is quite seriously at risk of becoming what lots of media become: mindless distraction. Just as we don’t want our children to become Tiger Woods or Paris Hilton, the product of social media fanaticism is at least mildly terrifying.
But the important thing to take away from both the threats on privacy and consumption is that these are not risks that arise originally from the birth of social media. Instead, they teach us something about ourselves.
When it comes to the things we are scared to share, I suggest that instead of hiding behind whatever walls a medium might create for privacy, we are more open. This is, of course, blindly optimistic. We can’t share everything, because there are bad people out there who will exploit that (financial, medical, competitive information). And society isn’t comfortable with certain behaviors despite their prevalence in our culture (sex and drugs).
But when I think about myself, who I am, I don’t really think I have all that much to apologize for or hide. OK, I’m an open book. If you know me, you probably know I don’t have too many secrets. If you don’t, or if there is some thing or things you don’t know about me, I would probably tell you anything if I can accompany it with a story and discussion. People are surprisingly forgiving, if they are given the chance and take the time to see the whole picture.
Also, that photo that I detagged because I look like a hideous idiot is actually quite endearing, because it’s me. The truth doesn’t have to be ugly, and I might even go so far as to suggest that it’s not, most of the time. Or it shouldn’t be. If we all strived to be the kind of person our digital iDentity represents, wouldn’t we have fewer qualms about privacy?
As far as consumption goes, the answer is simple. If a user of social media cares about living deliberately in general, chances are it won’t be too hard to make using social media deliberate.