Social networking – including services such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and BBM – looks like a whole brave new world to those of us who grew up without it. For the generation that is growing up with mobile phones and the Internet, it is simply a fact of life. Whichever side of the age divide you’re on, the one certainty is that social networks will change life as much as television did several decades ago.
If television shrunk the world by bringing news from around the globe into the living room, social networks have made the globe even smaller by turning people at opposite ends of the planet into our neighbours. Now, we’re forging many of our social relationships around common interests rather than geographical proximity.
It’s relatively easy to find someone, somewhere in the world who shares your interests, no matter how esoteric, and follow him or her on Twitter. In addition to contacts made online, social networks are also keeping people in our lives that we may have lost touch with in the past such as childhood school friends, distant relatives who have immigrated or former work colleagues.
Today, we may have hundreds of people that we connect with through our social networks. They might be called ‘friends’ in the new definition of the word that social networks have created, but many of these relationships may be superficial and inconsequential.
This is much like the real world, in fact, where we have close friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and others with whom we have relationships of varying depth and importance. It’s all too easy, however, to imagine that you have a closer bond with someone than you actually do when you see their innermost thoughts and daily deeds in a social media timeline.
And since it’s so quick and easy to post a Facebook status or a tweet, it’s equally simple to disclose information to people you don’t know that well when it’s really meant for those that you are close to. We’re seeing our ideas about privacy and appropriate sharing of information change the whole time as a result of social networking tools.
Many members of Generation Y seem happy to use social media to share aspects of their lives, which older people prefer to keep under wraps. Do they always understand the potential consequences of their openness or do they simply lead more transparent lives than people did in the past? It’s hard to say for sure, but they should certainly be more conscious in how they use a tool that is as natural to them as talking on the phone.
Ultimately, one of the most sobering truths of social networks is that they don’t change the way human beings behave. In many ways, social networks are modelled on the social networks of the real world. Social networks can amplify the impact of our negative and positive deeds and words. Social networking did not create the Arab Spring, but it did allow revolutionaries to mobilise and share information.
There have always been hoaxes and conmen, but social networks make it easier than ever for pranksters and fraudsters to prey on the gullible. There has always been bullying at schools, but technology can give it new dimensions.
And there have always been spontaneous outpourings of support for charities for crowds of people, but social networks have made it possible for more people in more places to mobilise faster in support of a cause.
Though specific social platforms may come and go – who knows if Facebook will exist in 20 years’ time? – it is clear that social networking is here to stay. As with any new medium and technology, we should be thinking about how it changes our lives so that we can maximise its benefits and minimise its threats and drawbacks.
Diane Charton is managing director at Acceleration Media.