Social Media Disaster Planning

This originally appeared as a post in April 2011.

What is social media? It’s become a very broad term that covers almost everything. Web sites, Facebook, Skype, Twitter; posting reviews on, Goodreads, Library Thing, Shelfari, and so on; texting and podcasting, even. All of these and more fall under the umbrella. There’s not much left out once you’ve listed all the possibilities, really. So the basic definition comes down to this: if you’re communicating with other people via some form of technology, you’re engaging in, perpetrating, or involved with social media.

Many people I know can name, without hesitation, five forms of technology-assisted communication that they use every day: Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, texting, MySpace, Skype, and over a dozen more. Some of them check email before they even have coffee. Others say they feel weird without their iPhones or Blackberries. More than one has mentioned setting up a Facebook page for an unborn child, clearly viewing this as an awesomely cool thing to do. Some check multiple media sources hourly, from email to texting to blogging to Facebook to Twitter and a dozen more.

I have to wonder if this is such a good thing.

I’ve commented in the past that some descriptions of how people use social media sound an awful lot like an addiction to me. The response is usually immediate, cheerful agreement–and then, not surprisingly, a touch of hostility. “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, what’s the problem?” one person demanded–which is frighteningly close to what I’ve heard from addicts in the past. (“I’m only hurting myself, nobody else, so what’s your problem?”)

Someone recently pointed out that in the past, social media had been aimed at reconnecting old friends who have lost touch; the kids growing up now, she said, won’t lose touch. No matter where they move, they’ll always be in touch with a vast network of people. They can literally put a request for help finding a job out into a worldwide network, any time, and get results in short order. When they’re fifty, they’ll still know the people they went to kindergarten with, middle school, college; first boyfriend, teachers, babysitters, you name it.

I’ll tell you what I think of that idea now: I think it’s creepy. Paired with potential addiction, and the host of mental and behavioral disorders that plague the human race, creepy becomes dangerous; not just in an exclusionary way (you’re not part of my network, Bob is, so Bob gets the job even though you’re more qualified) but in an emotional and psychological one as well.

As we grow, we naturally make choices as to who we’ll be friends with and who we don’t want to be around. Our growth in new directions is supported by an ever shifting cast of companions, whether we physically move around the country or stay in one place. That’s normal.

Now imagine that jerk you were friends with once…the one you told some of your intimate secrets to…the one that later stole your boyfriend and now you hate each other…imagine that jerk being a part of your life for the rest of your life. You can’t even complain about it to anyone, because everyone you know is friends with him or, at least, with friends of his. Can you imagine the lawsuits for slander and libel that could erupt from casual online conversations, if the internal politics of each networked group shifts?

Does that sound like a stretch? How about if someone is trying to escape an abusive ex-spouse or parent? Anonymity or a changed identity will be almost impossible, especially with the new face-recognition software being used so freely on sites like Facebook. The only option for those trying to escape a bad situation will be to avoid most social sites altogether, making them an outcast among the über-connected.

I’m exaggerating–maybe. I’m paranoid–maybe.

But humans naturally form small, exclusionary groups. Being networked into a thousand names won’t change the fact that there are only a handful we can really, honestly connect to at any given time. Having a worldwide network will only magnify the potential gossip tree, as we’re already seeing. It’s one thing for a celebrity’s minor screwups to be instant news, but ordinary people are being tarred with the gossip brush as well. What could have been a small incident goes viral, and an aspiring author’s reputation is ruined because she publicly posted an angry response to a bad review of her book.

Which points up another aspect of the problem for me: humans like to blame each other. Over and over, I’ve seen a small, trivial controversy become a dogpile of people screeching to have the loudest opinion and “trolls” stirring the discussion up every time it starts to quiet down. What will happen now when a kid does something against the unwritten “rules” of his peer group? What if a group of kids decides to spread vicious lies about an unpopular student? How about a rape victim whose identity–and that of her accused attacker–gets leaked online? Moving to another state won’t work; the problem will follow.

We will never be free of who we were, if we’re hooked into a network that has virtually recorded our every breath since birth; we will constantly be reminded of the past, no matter how far we run to escape it or what we do to become different people. Human memory is fallible and lets details haze after a while; but if photos of your drunk exploit at junior prom appear on Facebook and are stored in archived blog posts, twitter exchanges, and so on, you’ll never be allowed to forget that night–and neither will anyone else. Someone will have saved that photo; someone will have printed that blog post. Someone will keep that moment alive. You won’t ever really escape it, and that mistake could well define you without offering any real chance at redemption or growth.

I’m afraid the coming generations will be slowly stifled into conformity on a scale unprecedented in human history.

Is social media exciting and full of awesome possibility? Sure. No question. I’m blown away by the miracles at my fingertips every day, options my grandparents probably didn’t even dare to dream of having and my great-grandparents wouldn’t even have considered possible.

But just like any technology, social media has a dangerous side too. And while the above points may seem a ludicrous stretch to some people, not being aware of the possibility means we won’t think about ways to prevent it from happening–until it’s too late.

Just think about it. That’s all I’m asking. Think of it as “Social Media Disaster Planning”. Like that first-aid kit in your car, there may never come a time to need it–but then again…there might.


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