The Good, bad, and ugly of social media

posted by Brendan Hodgson

And I don’t mean the “bad” and “ugly” only in the context of PR… you know, the oodles of examples of corporate bad caught on video, audio or in photos and blogs, the one’s we can’t avoid rubber-necking and which we use to populate our Social Media 101 decks.

What I mean is the kind of experience shared by Danah Boyd (of whom I spoke in a recent post) about the response to her earlier ”blog essay/public musings” around social networks, teens, and class divisions.

It’s relevant. Why? Because it serves as a clear example of both the positives and negatives that occur in a much more “conversational” world. From the positive standpoint, it highlights the opportunity that exists when a discussion such as this expands beyond traditional barriers of communication such as time and location. As Danah herself states: “Because of the publicness of this article, I’ve had unbelievable conversations with academics and practitioners and parents and ministers and others about issues that I’m trying to address. I can’t help but wonder if they would’ve had time for this conversation if it weren’t so publicly visible. (None of us academics ever have time.)”

And that, I believe, is a good thing. Where once the “publishing” of a piece of work signalled the end of a true two-way discussion, this no longer needs to be the case. Danah goes on to say: “When studying post-structuralism, I was utterly fascinated by the idea of the death of the author. The idea is that once a text is put out there, the author matters not because the author has no control over how that text is interpreted. The weird thing about blogging is that the author is pretty darn present. I’m here. No one seems to realize that but I am.”

And it is the last line that serves as a warning to where things can get ugly:“I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to have thousands of people read my writings and ponder the questions that I put out there. My peer group extends beyond the academic walls. It’s not without cost though and I couldn’t help but wonder if the academics I know could’ve handled some of what I received this month. Not all of it was what we would call a review. I’ve had to practice deep breathing as I went through detailed discussions of whether or not I was cute enough to **** or look through bulletins that had decided to gather photos of me for analysis (they concluded that my arm bracelets prove that I’m a cutter). I know the Slashdot/Metafilter community well enough to not take the personal threats on my life or body seriously, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suck. Emails from parents accusing me of destroying their children’s lives suck. PR campaigns to discredit me suck. In general, being mocked isn’t any fun. Many of my dearest friends can’t stand even the slightest personal attack online; I’ve learned to take it for granted while being continuously disappointed by it. If online peer review is going to be this personal, few are going to be masochistic enough to want it.”

Personally, I believe – and will continue to believe in the positive power of social media. But it is examples such as this which also highlight the risks associated with playing in this space. Would, for example, the recent CNN/Youtube debates have been as civil had there not been the “professional” buffer separating the citizenry from the politicians, or would it have degenerated rapidly into verbal fisticuffs? Will the loudest voices always win out in the digital space, drowning out quieter and more measured dialog, particularly around important issues such as this. Was it Danah’s responsibility to ensure misinterpretation was avoided. Or is it the responsibility of the masses to acknowledge the potential for misinterpretation and thus temper their vitriolic responses?

Most certainly, any foray into the social media space requires a willingness to take the bad with the good. But will there come a time when the bad and ugly gets so bad and ugly that organizations ask “what’s the point?” and individuals decide the risk of being flamed just ain’t worth it?

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