Social Media: the Pros & the Cons

My Experience of Social Media

I have been a fan of social media every since it came into existence. My first foray into the field was as a member of the photo sharing website Flickr. Flickr was launched in 2004 by Ludicorp, a Vancouver-based company founded by Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake. I joined Flickr the year it launched, and I still find it a useful service, even though it has had a couple of owners since then. I also started blogging in 2004, and I actually managed to keep going until 2010! I joined Twitter in 2009, and I am still an active member of the site. Facebook launched as a public service in 2006. I can’t recall exactly when I joined Facebook, but I was reluctant to sign up initially due to privacy concerns. I think I finally gave in around 2010. Subsequent events have hardly increased my trust in the service, but it remains difficult to find anything that provides the same ability to interact as Facebook does. For a while I was a member of a brilliant small social network called FriendFeed, through which I met a number of really interesting people. Unfortunately, FriendFeed was acquired by Facebook in 2009 (no doubt to prevent it becoming a proper rival to Facebook), and it was finally allowed to die in 2015.

The Benefits of Social Media

Like all human inventions, social media services have their pros and cons. Benefits include increasing our ability to keep in touch, and to maintain existing relationships, even with people living on the other side of the planet. Online interactions can lead to face-to-face relationships, and there are now many long term real life partnerships and marriages that have started online. For those unable to leave the house, social media can be invaluable in reducing loneliness. In times of crises, like the current Coronavirus Pandemic, social media can be an excellent means of spreading vital public health information. Again from the educational point of view, social media contact can lead to increased political engagement. Professional development can be enhanced by sites such as LinkedIn. Personal development and growth can be promoted through contacts made online. Socially beneficial causes can be supported by crowdsourcing via social media. Sites such as Facebook provide opportunities for small businesses to develop into bigger businesses, and for individuals to sell unwanted items easily. This is not an exhaustive list: I am sure you can think of other benefits.

The Disadvantages of Social Media

Some of the problems associated with social media relate to the fact that information posted can never really be deleted. The business model of many sites, particularly Facebook, involves giving up some of our privacy in order for our data to be used to produce targeted advertising. There have, however, been concerns that data can also be used by, for example, political parties, to target propaganda at site users. Other privacy concerns include the use of information posted on social media by those engaged in criminal activity. Use of social media can have adverse effects on mental health from excessive peer pressure to bullying, revenge porn, and encouragement to consider suicide. Some people with excessive social media use may have features suggestive of addiction. Even if not addictive in character, excessive use can lead to poorer educational grades in students, a tendency to substitute online life for “real life”, sleep disturbance and a sedentary lifestyle.

“Global Worrying” Revisited

In August 2007 I wrote a blog post entitled “Global Worrying”. This referred to the fact that modern media, including social media, was making negative news all-too-readily available. I mentioned news about the Iraq War, and the looming Global Financial Crisis then, but in the intervening 13 years it seems to me that the Internet’s ability, through social media, to generate a constant feeling of unease has increased substantially. Some would argue that this is because we now have even more to worry about, but I don’t think that is the full explanation.

Social Media and Recent Events

Although technology has made sharing useful information about the COVID Pandemic easier, it has made the spreading of disinformation easier too (the subject of a future post). Having a huge amount of data regarding the epidemic fed to the mobile phone residing in practically every pocket is not, I would argue, entirely beneficial. The other recent phenomenon that has exploded on the scene largely as a result of social media is the reaction to the death of George Floyd. The killing of this man was clearly horrific, but I would argue that without social media it would not have led, within days, to massive Black Lives Matter protests, even outwith the USA. The background of heightened emotion related to the pandemic probably contributed too.

The Bottom Line re Social Media

At the end of the day, we are never going to be able to put the social media genie back in the bottle, but I think we all have to recognise that social media services have definite negative effects. Whether this will make us switch off our computers and our mobile phones is another matter, however.

Technology

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