Is social media out of control?

It was an innocuous Tweet.

I was faintly aware of having perspectives on the state of social media, what with being old and opinionated about everything, and all that.

What followed was a series of phone calls with researchers and producers, culminating in an email confirming expenses and a hotel room to sweeten the deal of pitching up at the blearily early hour of 8 (and a bit) at some random-sounding school in Birmingham for a spot of filming with Emeritus DJ-turned-morals-seeking-moderator Nicky Campbell for BBC One’s Big Questions.

Sadly, it didn’t transpire.

Is social media in pieces? Photo Credit: jhritz via Compfight.

I was cut up at the proverbial televisual traffic lights by a religious chap who told the programme’s editor he could handle the church of God and modern communication.

I’ve since heard from people I invited to tune in that the show was a load of old bollocks, and the wound of being passed over is still fresh so naturally I’m inclined to agree. I’m sure it was full of hearty and well-meaning debate, but c’mon – it wasn’t powered by my illogical ideas.

Which, thankfully, are here instead.

Is social media out of control?

Big Questions on social media emerged in the week when perpetrators such as the Syrian Electronic Army had taken control of some pretty influential Twitter profiles. For some hackers, to disseminate pro-Syrian propaganda was their wont. Others triggered economic strife, wiping hundreds of billions from stock prices.

Lift the veil, though, and the lasting effects were negligible. In fact, referring to the fiscal implications, damage was so short-term that if you blinked, barely would you have noticed the impact. People are, after all, logical creatures. Finding one influential Twitter accounts in the hands of one with nefarious intent does not bring the world to its knees.

So this social media thing – is it really out of control?

To the commentators, the navel gazers, the tech pundits and the stock tickers, I suppose it is. They feed on hysteria. Stories of falling stocks and falling men will always bring boys to the yard.

To the people for who social media really matters – the users – no.

Hackers fill column inches. All the positive things on social media do not. Barely a news in brief was devoted to the thousands mobilised through social networking to clean up after last year’s riots.

Stories by definition are about the hero’s journey.

You set out with a goal, to change things, then encounter blips and roadblocks on the way. There’s an almighty challenge, when it’s easier to give up than to prevail. And then the golden egg is laid and everyone realises just what an incredible difference to the world that hero has made.

That’s social media and right now thanks to hype, speculation and hysteria, we’re at a point where we’re wondering if it’s all worth the effort. The question is whether this is a blip or the big baddie on the final level of striving for something very important – and whether we’re prepared to let it thrive and survive, or put it to rest.

Give it to me – hard and fast

Twitter’s strongest suit is a time thing. It’s the best and typically most accurate source for breaking news, but after that brief 30-60 minute window immediately following an event, related Tweets generally dissolve into rumour, hyperbole and conjecture.

Where mainstream media usually differs from Twitter – a completely, for now, open platform, is in verification. Traditional media more often than not backs up claims with evidence. The citizen journalist has no moral obligation to do so.
People interpret news differently based on trust and relationships. Because trust is contextual and subjective, the role of the journalist has become a lot more challenging since we’ve become obsessed and conditioned to being indulged in real time.

Trust in news

The permanence of print forces us to believe in the press. We abjectly fail to see the divide between ‘conventional’ news and the matter appearing on social networks.

Hackers get that, and pour boorish detail upon us in pixels. They know how widespread words are when published on social media. They are impelled to misinform digitally because it’s cheaper than buying a newspaper or TV station – and because included in the ‘we’ that is misled, is the media itself.

First to the prize

In the perennial battle for advertiser spend, the war to be first intensifies. And the so-called news doesn’t get fresher than from Twitter and its cohorts.

The novelty factor of social media has its fans and its flaws. None of us are yet fully conversant with this new order and you can’t automatically expect penicillin in a Petri dish.

We’re charting a sight unseen journey towards something. The epiphany, the Eureka moment that delivers us from uncertainty into a realm of understanding, is inevitable – but we have a lot of learning, growing pains and settling down to do first.

What social networking does is provide access to unprecedented wells of knowledge, and cultural and societal understanding. Anthropologists of yore would have quickly amassed fortunes with the insights we now take for granted.

It’s raw, sometimes real, and it’s fascinating. Social media satisfies the highest three rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

It feels so real

Whenever I seek answers to big questions I go looking for Brian Solis, sage at the intersection of things technological, cultural and commercial.

Solis reasons that engagement symbolises the touches that occur in various moments of truth. And in a society that needs people to be interwoven from the standpoint of anthropological evolution, the success of social media is absolutely important.

Today – right now – our young are lost without technological stimulation. They have petitioned long and hard to be understand and heard, and their passport stamped Digital Native is their shillelagh.

To suggest some roadblocks and murmurings of discontent along the way are enough to derail the most crucial development the world has ever seen in ubiquitous communication, is beyond folly – it is impossible to imagine.

How to grow

The first thing that needs to happen to calm the waters for one network in particular is better authentication – and at long last it seems Twitter has shrugged off its security malaise and according to Hubspot is thinking seriously about that.

And when it comes to protecting your personal data, who do you think tops the charts? Larry Bird, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation via Macworld UK.

Aside from lockdowns, the principal way social networks can do things better is through user input.

Everything is about agile development these days – the very nature of living in a world where we crave solutions to everything and updates in real time.

Being agile means delivering something that’s good enough, and committing to a system of constant refinement. Social media itself makes the experience of evolution easier.

And evolution itself is what social media is undergoing. We’re but tadpoles in the scheme of modern technology. We’re facing a strange dichotomy – people want it perfect, but they want it now, not when it can be. And if we take pause or give latitude, and realise that what we have in our hands is a power for good.

 The Big Questions

When I had one of those conversations with the TV producer I was asked if regulation would help or hinder. I have no doubt it would impede; it would be anaesthesia to progress.

You may have heard Twitter referred to as a self-cleaning oven. The rumours circulate, but then the masses pile in with clarifications to balance the story. It’s the same with Wikipedia, but slower.

Good will prevail once we’ve overcome the hurdles. No champion jockey has ever won the Grand National without planning, guile and a big dream for a better way.

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