Impact of Social Media on Society

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“Do you have Facebook?”

“Yes, of course. But I don’t think you can find me, as there are too many people who have the same name as me. Try searching with my surname as well.”

“Hey, you celebrated your birthday in K-Box, right? I saw the photos in your Facebook.”

“Bro, I saw your comments about the YouTube video that I’ve posted in my blog. I’m happy that you are also deeply moved by the ‘Dancing Peacock Man’ as well.”

Social media or “social networking” has almost become part of our daily lives and being tossed around over the past few years. It is like any other media such as newspaper, radio and television but it is far more than just about sharing information and ideas. Social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Blogs have facilitated creation and exchange of ideas so quickly and widely than the conventional media. The power of define and control a brand is shifting from corporations and institutions to individuals and communities. It is no longer on the 5Cs (e.g. condominium, credit cards and car) that Singaporeans once talked about. Today, it is about the brand new Cs: creativity, communication, connection, creation (of new ideas and products), community (of shared interests), collaboration and (changing the game of) competition.

In January 2010, InSites Consulting has conducted an online survey with 2,884 consumers from over 14 countries between the ages of 18 to 55 years old on social networking. More than 90% of participants know at least 1 social networking site and 72% of participants are members of at least 1 social networking site. On the average, people have about 195 friends and they log in twice a day to social networking sites. However, 55% of the users cannot access their social network websites at work. In the past, not many adults were able to make more than 500 friends, but with social media, even a child or teenager can get to know more than 500 people in a few days by just clicking the mouse. Social media has devalued the traditional definition of “friend” where it means trust, support, compatible values, etc. Although we get to know more people, we are not able to build strong bond with all the people whom we met as our available time is limited. Hence, there is an upcoming social trend of people with wider social circles, but weaker ties (people we don’t know very well but who provide us with useful information and ideas).

Social media also influences people’s buying behaviours. Digital Influence Group reported that 91% of the people say consumer reviews are the #1 aid to buying decisions and 87% trust a friend’s recommendation over critic’s review. It is thrice more likely to trust peer opinions over advertising for purchasing decisions. 1 word-of-mouth conversation has an impact of 200 TV ads. With the prevalence use of social media, there is numerous news related to it from the most viewed YouTube video on “Armless pianist wins ‘China’s Got Talent'” to Web-assisted suicide cases (e.g. New Jersey college student who killed himself after video of him in a sexual encounter with another man was posted online). Thus, does social networking make us better or worse off as a society?

Positive Effects of Social Media

Besides having opportunity to know a lot of people in a fast and easy way, social media also helped teenagers who have social or physical mobility restrictions to build and maintain relationships with their friends and families. Children who go overseas to study can still stay in meaningful contact with their parents. To a greater extend, there is anecdotal evidence of positive outcomes from these technologies.

In 2008, President-elected Obama won the election through the effective use of social media to reach millions of audience or voters. The Obama campaign had generated and distributed huge amount of contents and messages across email, SMS, social media platforms and their websites. Obama and his campaign team fully understood the fundamental social need that everyone shares – the need of being “who we are”. Therefore, the campaign sent the message as “Because It’s about YOU” and chose the right form of media to connect with individuals, call for actions and create community for a social movement. They encouraged citizens to share their voices, hold discussion parties in houses and run their own campaign meetings. It truly changed the delivery of political message.

Obama campaign had made 5 million “friends” on more than 15 social networking sites (3 million friends on Facebook itself) and posted nearly 2,000 YouTube videos which were watched over 80 million times. At its peak, their website, MyBarackObama.com, had 8.5 million monthly visitors and produced 400,000 blog posts. In order to ensure that their contents were found by people, the Obama campaign spent $3.5 million on Google search in October alone, $600,000 on Advertising.com, $467,000 on Facebook in 2008, etc. Currently, Obama’s Twitter account has close to 6 million followers.

In 2010, after the earthquake happened in Haiti, many of the official communication lines were down. The rest of the world was not able to grasp the full picture of the situation there. To facilitate the sharing of information and make up for the lack of information, social media came in very handy to report the news about the affected area on what happened and what help was needed. Tweets from many people provided an impressive overview of the ongoing events from the earthquake. BBC covered the event by combining tweets from the work of its reporter Matthew Price in Port-au-Prince at the ground. Guardian’s live blog also used social media together with the information from other news organisations to report about the rescue mission.

It has been two years since CNN officially launched iReport as a section of its website where people can upload video material, with contact information. During the Haiti crisis, CNN had published a range of social media material but not all the materials were verified. The editorial staff would vet the reports from the citizen journalists and labeled them differently compared to unverified contents. On Facebook, a group, named “Earthquake Haiti”, was formed to show support and share updates and news. It had more than 14,000 members and some users even pleaded for assistance to the injured Haitians in the group. Using email, Twitter and social networking sites like Facebook, thousands of volunteers as part of Project Ushahidi were able to map reports sent by people from Haiti.

The most impressive part of the social media’s impact on Haiti is the charity text-message donations that soared to over $10 million for the victims in Haiti. People interested in helping the victims are encouraged to text, tweet and publicize their support using various social networking sites. The Global Philanthropy Group had also started a campaign to ask wealthy people and celebrities, like Ben Stiller and John Legend to use Twitter and Facebook to encourage others to give to UNICEF. An aid worker, Saundra Schimmelpfennig, allowed the advice from other aid workers and donors to post on her blog regarding to choosing which charitable organisations to support. In the meantime, donors were asking questions in Twitter, Facebook and blogs about their donations and endorsements of their favourite charities. After every crisis, the social media for social cause becomes a more effective medium to spread the word.

Negative Effects of Social Media

There are always two sides of every coin. Social media is just a tool or mean for people to use. It is still up to the users on how to use this tool (just like a knife, can help you to cut food or hurt others). Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center conducted a study on “The Future of Online Socializing” from the highly engaged, diverse set of respondents to an online, opt-in survey consisted of 895 technology stakeholders and critics. The negative effects presented by the respondents included time spent online robs time from important face-to-face relationships; the internet fosters mostly shallow relationships; the act of leveraging the internet to engage in social connection exposes private information; the internet allows people to silo themselves, limiting their exposure to new ideas; and the internet is being used to engender intolerance.

Some respondents also highlighted that there will be development of some new psychological and medical syndromes that will be “variations of depression caused by the lack of meaningful quality relationships”, and a “new world society”. The term, “Social Networking”, has begun to deceive the users to believe they are social creatures. For instance, spending a couple of hours using Farmville and chatting with friends concurrently does not convert into social skills. People become dependent on the technology and forget how to socialise in face-to-face context. The online personality of a person might be totally different from his/her offline character, causing chaos when the two personalities meet. It is apparent in online dating when the couple gets together in face-to-face for the first time. Their written profiles do not clearly represent their real-life characters. It is more enticing for people to type something that others want to hear than saying the truth.

Besides the “friendship”, creators of social networking sites and users redefine the term, “privacy” in the Internet as well. The challenge in data privacy is to share data while protecting personally identifiable information. Almost any information posted on social networking sites is permanent. Whenever someone posts pictures or videos on the web, it becomes viral. When the user deletes a video from his/her social network, someone might have kept it and then posted it onto other sites like YouTube already. People post photographs and video files on social networking sites without thinking and the files can reappear at the worst possible time. In 2008, a video of a group of ACJC students hazing a female student in school on her birthday was circulated and another video of a SCDF recruit being “welcomed” (was hosed with water and tarred with shoe polish) to a local fire station made its way online.

Much news has been reported about online privacy breach in Facebook and Facebook is constantly revising their privacy policy and changing their privacy controls for the users. Interestingly, even when users delete their personal information and deactivate their Facebook account, Facebook will still keep that information and will continue to use it for data mining. A reporter asked whether the data will at least be anonymized. The Facebook representative declined to comment.

In the corporate world, human resource managers can access Facebook or MySpace to get to know about a candidate’s true colours, especially when job seekers do not set their profiles to private. Research has found that almost half of employers have rejected a potential worker after finding incriminating material on their Facebook pages. Some employers have also checked the candidates’ online details in Facebook pages to see if they are lying about their qualifications. Nowadays, younger generations have a complete disregard for their own privacy, opening doors to unwelcome predators or stalkers.

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