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How To Navigate Social Media Effectively (“It’s not bad, it’s complicated.”)

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It’s cool to hate on social media.

  • In Durex’s ad “Turn Off to Turn On“, you’ll see lovers who are more lukewarm than hot and heavy, because they’re too busy social-networking. It’s recommended that we plug out for just an hour, and get it on (with Durex protection, of course).
  • Coca Cola employed this “Social Media Plague” tactic too, in its ‘cone of shame’ ad, which helps the recovering off the virtual path of destruction by “[taking] the social out of media and putting it back into your life”. You can be a functional human being again, preferably with a bottle of coke in hand.
  • In a satirical video, Ignorify helps social media users ignore ‘real life’, an unneeded distraction from the more important things on screen. With so much going on on social media, who’s got time to look up at all?

And of course, we all remember that famous Facebook doomsday prediction earlier this January. A Princeton study had likened Facebook to an infection, and concluded that because infections eventually die out, 80% of users would inevitably quit by 2017. Because Facebook is a terrible and dangerous anomaly, but it too shall pass.

Facebook’s priceless response pointed out that, by Princeton’s line of reasoning, Princeton itself was in danger of disappearing entirely. (Ditto for the world’s air supply.)

You get the drift. It’s easy to get a rise out of taking a jab at social networks and their users.

But social media is not the enemy.

Is there any truth in The Social Network Plague? Are we increasingly removing ourselves from real life, and living an elaborate delusion? Shouldn’t we be worried about anti-social, or generally dangerous behavior over social networks? A preteen girl asks complete strangers if she’s beautiful, and responses are obscene. A boy tries to kill himself because he was obsessed with taking a selfie he could live with. Surely this is stuff we should be worried about!

Anthropologist danah boyd (no caps!) has an incisive perspective on the panic and cynicism surrounding social networks in a recent interview, and in her research. Essentially, she says that The Social Network Plague is unfounded, and that the impact of social networks on people is “complicated”:

People have been reacting to the same way to ground-breaking technology for the longest time!

When the Walkman was first introduced, people believed it marked the end of social life. Centuries before that, Socrates was deeply skeptical about written communication. Everything before we’re born is normal and how things have always been, what happens when we’re young is new and exciting, and everything thereafter is against the natural order of things.

“Any new technology that captures widespread attention is likely to provoke serious hand wringing, if not full blown panic,” says boyd. “These fears are now laughable, but when these technologies first appeared, they were taken very seriously.”

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Technology, can’t deal.

Our feelings of social disconnect are multi-causal.

boyd observes that teens take to online spaces so enthusiastically because they want time and space without adult supervision, and they have much less of those now than ever. I think adults do the same because they’re trying to stay connected in a world where people are much more mobile, friends go away from us, and we have to find a way to keep up to speed while physically remote.

Bottom line – We turn to social networks precisely because we are social people, but our changing environments make it difficult to be social in a synchronous way. “Most social network users are not compelled by gadgetry as such, but by friendship,” says boyd, “And gadgets are primarily as a means to a social end.”

Social media does not create, but magnifies, the good, bad, and ugly of everyday life.

Or, we feel that teenagers are so much more insecure now because they’re able to reflect their pain online, and we’re more able to see that pain. boyd makes an excellent point that “When teens are hurting offline, they reveal their hurt online. When teens’ experiences are shaped by racism and misogyny, this becomes visible online.”.

Social media (or any new technology!) is an easy scapegoat.

So why is The Social Media Plague bought and sold so persistently?

Nostalgia and moral panic are easy ways to cope with change.

We’re prone to remember the past fondly, and look at the present with distress. The complaint about ‘millennials’ being lazy is a recurring one, which exposes more about the way we react to every new age, than our new age itself.

We are inclined to look at technologies in a deterministic way.

Surely technologies don’t possess intrinsic powers that affect all people in all situations the same way. But we have believed, and still believe, that it is new technology that alters our social fabric for the worse. This, according to boyd, is because “it is easier to focus on the technology than on the broader systemic issues at play, because technical changes are easy to see.”

How do we navigate and manage social media effectively?

First, we need to accept that it’s here to stay. Denial doesn’t help anybody. But more importantly, we need to suspend our nostalgia and fears about new technologies, and pay attention to how people are using them.

Already we have terrific examples of young people utilizing the visibility and reach of social media to make a difference:

  1. They’ve created Tumblr pages to talk about on-campus racism – the “I Too Am Harvard” project has spread to other top institutions, like Oxford, Cambridge, and the SOAS.
  2. In Singapore, the LGBT community has made good of Facebook confessions pages (link: Gay SG Confessions’ Tumblr) to debate intracommunity issues, and to bathe suicidal Anons in love and support.
  3. Moving and inspiring stories have made it around the world thanks to Facebook projects like Humans of New York.
  4. The recent “No Makeup Selfie” campaign made selfies a body-positive force, while raising more than £2m for Cancer Research UK.

Brands can do it too! It’s passé to treat social media as a billboard for hire – brands that plaster their ads everywhere are resented and ignored by people who use the space.

What you can do is, treat social media like what it could be – a space of comfort, connection; some trivial lulz, but also social change. You can capitalize on the visibility and reach of social media to both entertain and engage consumers meaningfully.

Other posts in this sequence:

  1. What IS social media?
  2. Why is it so hard to define social media, and why should we care?
  3. What’s the difference between ‘social networking sites’ and social media?
  4. Why are people so annoying on social media?
  5. How did online social networks disrupt traditional media?
  6. How will social media change the way we live and consume?
  7. How to navigate social media effectively
  8. Curated Social Media Wisdom From Top Enterprise Experts [Infographic]

Melissa Tsang

Melissa Tsang is a writer and speaker on the social impact of ecommerce and technology. She's also a bit of an impulse shopper. (A bit.)

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