Sunday, September 11, 2011

Good and Evil: The Role of Social Media since 9/11 and in the Future

Today, social networks are full of posts declaring "we will never forget," as if washing the images and emotions of 9/11 from our collective memory was an option. On days like today, social media is a tool that brings us together, but in the decade since September 11, 2001, has social media been a force for good or evil?

The first decade after 9/11 coincides with the first decade of social media. In September 2001, social media was in its infancy--sites like Geocities and LiveJournal provided a place for people to share widely and, an ahead-of-its-time tool that demonstrated how connected we are, had recently shuttered. In the year following 9/11, Friendster would launch. The year after that, MySpace came into being and Mark Zuckerberg launched Facemash. Within another twelve months, Facebook, LinkedIn,, Hi5, Orkut, Dodgeball, and Flickr were online, and you know the story since then.

There are times social media appears to have been a force for "good," or at least a means to empower people to come together for positive change. Social media helped usher in "The Arab Spring," a wave of civil uprisings that toppled authoritative regimes and brought economic concessions in over a dozen Middle East countries. Social Media helped raise $5 million following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Social media reunites loved ones following natural disastersbrought positive political change to Columbia, is being used to prevent children from being recruited into begging and crime, has located kidnapped children and helps medical professionals track and react to flu outbreaks.

But social media has also been used for evil. Social media has made people vulnerable to kidnapping, enabled bullying that ends young lives, connects pedophiles and victims, facilitates the planning of criminal flashmobs, allows misinformation to disseminate rapidly and spreads malware.

More broadly, one cannot look at our country and suggest we are a more united and collaborative people a decade after 9/11 and into the social media revolution--political campaigns have gotten uglier and divisions in Washington have grown poisonous. On September 11, 2011, America is a deeply divided society. Where is the cooperation, commitment to greater good, shared values and openness to others' viewpoints promised by both the post-9/11 and social media period?

Is social media destined to merely reflect all that is wonderful and horrible in humanity? Or is social media a force for good?

Just as mass media changed our habits and beliefs, so too will Social media alter human nature, but it will take time. When humans are faced with change, they sometimes rebel because change can be scary--witness the painful journey through civil rights in the US or the violence in the Middle East and Europe this year.

Today, change is faster and more profound than ever. The growth of software and digital media is undermining traditional job security; social media is calling into question long-held beliefs about privacy; terrorism and tribalism have forever altered our sense of security and perceptions of geopolitical boundaries; environmental threats are forcing new considerations of growth and consumption; fluid international trade and migration are changing attitudes about multiculturalism and economic globalization; and governmental debt is causing many to reassess the role of government, taxes and social programs. Some welcome these changes but many are not sure what these changes mean for them and their children, and this concern is being expressed in ways both explicit and not in social media and the real world.

But we will adapt to the new realities--we always do!--and from this will come a new sense of our place in the world. Prior to mass media we only knew what happened in the tiny corner of the world in which we lived, and our actions were informed by the people and events within mere miles of us. In the mass media era, we saw the world more widely, but that view was fashioned for us by the entities that controlled the media.

Today, thanks to digital and social media, we have the means to understand the entire world as it is, only filtered by our own biases, perceptions and attitudes. If we get a stilted and incorrect view of the world, it is no longer the fault of politicians, media conglomerates and the powerful but ourselves. Some will willfully create a network of people and information sources that fit their world view, but whether we choose to be comforted or challenged is no one's decision but our own.

In the years to come, those who will be best prepared for the future won't be the ones with insular networks that tell them what they want to hear but will be the individuals who recognize and act based on how interconnected we have become. And therein lies the power of social media--transparency and the free dissemination of information may not make us different humans right now, but it will separate the people who see the future and lead others to it from those who choose to hide.

One painful and profound change that social media will force upon us is a new sense about what privacy is and is not. Just a few years ago, privacy was a right and we elected to hide virtually everything about ourselves; even today, some want to blur their homes in Google Street View and are annoyed Google+ won't permit anonymity.

Traditionally, people have been deeply suspicious about a loss of privacy because the collection, control and use of personal data has been undisclosed, occurred without permission and managed by opaque entities. But what will happen to attitudes about privacy when wider swathes of personal data are not owned by government agencies and market research firms but offered freely and made available to all?

A transition to a more transparent world will happen slowly and painfully and many will fight it, but consider how that list I shared of "evils" perpetrated within social media is altered in a transparent world. Bullying cannot happen when inappropriate and hateful behavior is immediately surfaced and parents and educators are alerted; pedophiles cannot harm others when they are not protected by false identities and anonymity; stalkers cannot hide in the shadows when their real world and digital whereabouts are known; and malware cannot so easily spread when the source is exposed for all to see.

We still need places like Twitter where anonymity is embraced, but our increasingly transparent and interconnected world cannot advance with outdated attitudes about privacy. Or, perhaps more accurately, our outdated attitudes about privacy cannot survive in our increasingly transparent and interconnected world.

I foresee a world where social media helps good thrive and forces evil out of the shadows and into the bright spotlight of public scrutiny. Do you agree? Please share your opinions below in the comments.


Ian Greenleigh said...

All of the great leaps forward in science and society have entailed the risk of abuse, empowerment of evil, etc. We see things like communications technologies being used to invade privacy. On the most extreme end of this equation, we risked nothing less than our annihilation as a species when developing nuclear technologies. But technologies are not benign or malevolent. They can always be abused and exploited by those that employ them, and we've certainly seen this with social. In any open system like social, we're collectively choosing freedom over control and safety. Social seems to bring out the best and the worst of us. It's a reflection, but a distorted one. We tend to use more hyperbole and less caution. It also amplifies and nourishes our egos and vanity.

But social is and was inevitable, and will never submit to full control. No concerted effort to use it for either good or evil will influence the ecosystem in either direction in any long-term or widespread way. It empowers us inasmuch as we don't try to control it. And there's something beautiful about that.

Neil Glassman said...

Thanks, Augie, for presenting your look ahead in such thoughtful context. Allow me to take the notion of "evil" on a tangent.

I find it helpful to characterize media by four components: Technology transmission channel, content transmitted, control structure (ownership and regulation) and consumers. When compared with other mass media, what we label social media allows the consumer to play a greater role in the content distributed and control structure. Allows, but not guarantees.

Those in control — good, bad or benign — resist ceding control to others. I agree that we are moving to a more transparent world with new definitions of personal, corporate and government privacy. Media consumers, who have the most to benefit, are at the forefront of this movement.

At present, I find the owners of legacy linear media channels to be generally more transparent than owners of social media channels. Those who take the time to look will find fewer gray areas in the editorial and operational processes of newspapers and cable TV channels than in Facebook.

Of greater concern is that owners of most media channels — of all categories — as well as those who advertise and market on them are less than fully forthcoming about how they collect and use data from their consumers. I look forward to those who proselytize the openness of social media to set an example by engaging in an “active transparency” in which they lead the privacy conversations with their consumers.

If they don’t, they may fall victim to a growing cultural impression that all those who continue to withhold do so because they have an “evil” agenda.

Augie Ray said...

Very interesting and thoughtful, Neil. I agree--greater transparency on what is collected would be beneficial. I've never really understood why media sites and the online ad industry have resisted true transparency with consumers. Seems an obvious trust-building strategy, and one that encourages more attention and engagement with relevant marketing!