Social Media – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Quite recently I stumbled upon this talk on┬áTEDxTysons. It’s by Cal Newport and he is all for quitting social media. Before you think he is too old or not enough tech-savvy, get this, he is a millennial and a computer scientist. Did I mention he is an author as well?

I am on every bit of social media available to humankind. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and even Whatsapp. But a couple of days before hearing Newport’s talk, I had deleted the Facebook app from my phone. It was partly because of privacy issues. I started seeing ads for products I had discussed with my friends on Whatsapp.

As Cal says, social media offers “shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data which can then be packaged up and sold.”

Not all social media platforms are created equal though. For example, Tumblr and Reddit are struggling with profitability, while Facebook and Instagram are not. Tumblr is a blog based social network with a user base nearly as big as Instagram’s, a reblog framework unlike any other, and it is smack in the middle of what is known as “internet culture.” Fandoms love Tumblr. Advertisers don’t. Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet,” much like Tumblr, has not yet been able to turn its prominence and influence into profit. Twitter and YouTube are struggling as well.

So when Cal talks about shiny treats and use of personal information, Facebook comes to mind. It seems to be making good use of “attention engineers” and extensive data-mining processes. It’s not a place for creativity or funny gifs, it’s a place where you update your school and work information, post pics of your vacation (sometimes an entire album), and list your favorite songs. It’s clean (Tumblr has a porn problem). It’s bland. It’s monitored. It has reached 2 billion users. Your aunt’s best friend’s twice-removed third cousin is on it, and most likely, he has sent you a friend request. And as I have found out the hard way, the ads are unnervingly specific.

Did I mention that it’s also the most profitable?

Other than selling targeted ads, social networks like Facebook fragments our attention and leaves us feeling isolated. We post photos of parties while they are happening. We check our phones constantly. We “check-in” to restaurants and movies, letting the world know our whereabouts. We post pics of our food. It could all seem boring when listed like this, but to advertisers and marketers, this data is gold.

Social media is also responsible for spreading fake news. There’s so much of it online. As in real life, you have to learn to filter out the crazy. The hateful, and the harmful.

Then there’s the safety concern. It’s best to keep things like your address and the name of your child’s school private for reasons not unknown to us. Sharing your location via Foursquare or Facebook’s check-in or even the newly introduced Snap Map from Snapchat is not a great idea, strictly from the point of security.

As with everything, social media does have its ups. Awareness for causes, like say animal cruelty, gets a big boost. I follow some of these Facebook pages like the Born Free Foundation, and I don’t know if I would have known half as much if it was not for their daily updates. As the name suggests, “social” media helps in spreading the word. People share stuff and that’s good for humanitarian causes. I know a friend who has raised money for a playground for under-privileged children in Asia through social media.

Apart from doing good, social media often has this niche segments that can only be viewed by logging in. For example, a certain section of the New York Times Book’s videos can be viewed solely on their Facebook page. It’s like a mini-show with children’s books authors drawing and painting while they discuss their work.

As Cal points out, social media is a form of entertainment, not a technology by itself. Spending time online can be both fun and productive. It depends on what you do. You can do research, you can learn a new language, do online courses, earn a degree, you can watch movies, you can pay your bills, you can shop, you can play games, etc. All these activities can be separated from social media. Social networks by themselves are mainly here to distract.

The idea behind social media is connection. That’s its USP. That’s why it thrives. We like being connected to other people. Preschool friends, college room-mates, far-flung relatives and what not. It’s nice to have that sort of virtual group.

Being a travel writer, I need social media. I need to connect. I want to network. I love to collaborate on projects. I want to share my stories and photos. I want to see where my colleagues are going, read their stories. Like their photos. But I can choose to separate the interesting from the useless. I can choose to filter my feed and use my time on social media wisely.

As in real life, moderation is key.

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