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Should we be scared of social networks?

Did you read Evgeny Morozov in the Sunday Times review section last weekend? A similar article appeared in the Washington JournalHe warns us that secret police and paranoid states are using Twitter and Facebook not only to learn about who might be subversive, but also as a media channel to manage public opinion. Apparently they flood Twitter and the like with high volumes of pro-state announcements in order to divert attention from revolutionary and anti-state campaigning. Witness the green movement in Iran (and I don't mean the tree-huggers). Not only have thousands of supporters been confessing their 'sins' openly online (saves waterboarding them later), but government employees have been flooding the channels with pro-state rhetoric, thereby diluting the voices of the few brave and as yet unsilenced revolutionaries. It's working. When did you last read of protests in Tehran?  Ahmadinejad's popularity is actually on the rise.

Well I believe there are several other dangers lurking in the bowels of Social Networking. The following are a few we ought to be aware about. Maybe we ought to research whether they really do have the potential to cause harm:

Frape: ‘Facebook-rape’, where ‘amusing’ comments and profile changes are made by ‘friends’ who stumble across a laptop on a temporarily vacated desk which hasn’t been logged out of Facebook. Typically meant as a joke, but if done believably, a ‘frape’ can leave a scar long after the target has tried to reverse the changes. I have heard of kids being fraped to appear as though they’ve ‘come out’, were planning or had committed a crime, had had sex with another (usually intended to embarrass both parties) etc. In the context of Evgeny's campaign to alert us about the establishment extracting information or inferring characteristics and preferences of individuals, fraping might also be used to frame and implicate otherwise innocent people.

Hate campaigns: My daughter lost her phone. Panic! It turned out a lad at her uni had borrowed it as a joke. My daughter expressed her anger to 400+ friends on Facebook. Within hours the lad had received thousands, yes thousands of hate comments from my daughter’s friends and friends of friends. A page was started by one of them to expose the ‘evils’ of what he’d done. Needless to say both he, and my daughter, regretted what they had done, but too late. He is marked for life, and even received death threats (not serious of course, but unpleasant nonetheless). Facebook is judge, jury and executioner. We already read about suicides resulting from malicious comments appearing on Facebook.

Addiction: Kids can’t bear to be out of touch with who’s doing or saying what, especially about them, and especially (the true genius of Facebook over all its predecessors) when they are tagged in a picture. If you knew there was a picture of you on the net, how could you not want to see it as quickly as you can – and if you’re sensitive about your appearance (what teenager isn’t?), to ‘untag’ unflattering ones before too many people see them? Addicted Facebookers are checking their profiles constantly. They are being bonged on their mobiles and PCs every time something that may be of interest to them occurs. My teenage childrens' phones ‘bong’ every couple of minutes. Kids watch TV with one eye on their phone. Lectures are being ignored in favour of mobiles under desks (students know they can download the powerpoint later). Meetings and workflow all over the planet are being interrupted by a phone or browser check. The concentration of a generation is being decimated. In my view, we should not underestimate the destructive effect of this obsession. I wonder if there has been any scientific research into this.

Insidious Marketing: Traditional advertising or ‘direct marketing’ (eg mail campaigns and telemarketing) is manageable. We know we are being sold to and can either try to avoid it or accept it as a penalty for living in a free market economy. More importantly we make entirely personal decisions as to whether we are interested in the products or services being promoted. At the point of contact by the brand, we are influenced only by the strength of their message and our own experiences. No longer. The most powerful way to encourage someone to become a customer is by referral. The mate in a pub or bloke at a party telling you how good (or bad) their latest car or camera is, instantly becomes powerful persuasion. Brand advocacy. Facebook unlocks the potential of referral. If I am ‘friends’ with John, and John ‘likes’ BMW, then BMW can now reach me, not in the traditional way, but through John. This is Facebook’s equivalent to Google Adwords – it’s their business model. The reason they are worth (easily I suspect) $50bn. They are turning their community, unwittingly, into the most potent salesforce imaginable. And all we do is say we ‘like’ something. Am I the first to coin the expression 'Word of Click' as the web's alternative to Word-of-Mouth?

Am I being paranoid or have we opened a Pandora’s box, not just for states and their ‘security’ forces to access and influence our lives, but by enabling human nature itself to run out of control?

And if I'm right, what can we do about it without appearing luddite, anti-establishment and a threat to ‘progress’? Who’s going to care anyway? Over 500 million people love it. Stop Facebook? The genie's out of the bottle. There's no way we can push water up hill, but we can be more aware about where it's running to.

But I suspect there is one glimmer of hope on the digital horizon. Boredom with FB and SM generally. Remember its only been going a very few years. Most early adopters are still in the same generational era as they were when they started amassing 'friends'. What's going to happen when they decide to 'unfriend' cohorts of people they probably can't even remember? What's going to happen when they become less and less interested in a picture posted that includes them? What's going to happen when they are no longer interested in mating with everyone (applicable)? What's going to happen when they get jobs and don't want their work colleagues (new friends?), least of all their bosses, to mix with their past lives? What's going to happen when they hone down their lives into the way most adults live - selectively doing the stuff we like, with the people we really like. Privately.

And if 'Business' is as successful as it's planning to be in exploiting 'Social Media', won't we smell the coffee and slowly abandon it as it's fakeness becomes more and more exposed?

Unfortunately I am also one of the early pioneers of internet communications, so I guess I, more than most perhaps, have a duty to try to repair the damage before it’s too late – which it may already be...... , but having had my gromble, I don't really know how to repair whatever damage is being done, other than expose the possibility that dangers lurk in social networking, and encourage debate. I might even try to make some more money out of it :-)


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