As I went back and read my first post on this site, in which I gave my initial thoughts on social media/digital business, I was struck by how wrong I was in what I expected from the class. I assumed, like most CSOM classes, it would be structured in a “how-to” format, with little abstract theories or concepts involved. For example, I figured that I’d be learning how to properly use hashtags to promote a brand, much like how a Corporate Finance class teaches you how to value a company using discounted free cash flows, or how a Marketing Research class is all about designing surveys. However, what I got out of this class was much more valuable than the practical knowledge of how to compose a tweet. Rather, it allowed me to understand the broader implications of social media upon our world and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves. Before the class began, I would have said that social media is a positive tool that connects people, but can have negative consequences if used incorrectly. Now, I think I’d say that users of social media have rendered it a negative tool that actually divides people, but can have positive consequences if used correctly. Essentially, the opposite of what I originally thought. It’s probably a pessimistic outlook on social media, but also a realistic one.
Every positive impact of social media that we’ve discussed in class has a negative counterpart. First of all, obviously, social media has the power to bring people together. It can allow for connection with family across the world, or reunion with a long-lost friend who you’ve fallen out of contact with. Beyond the immediate circle of family and friends, social media also connects people who share common beliefs, struggles, causes, or opinions. One obvious example of this is the Ice Bucket Challenge in the summer of 2014, which spread like wildfire across social media, then television, and, before we knew it, the entire world. Social media and the #IceBucketChallenge brought awareness of ALS to millions, and raised enough money to lead to the discovery of a new gene. More recently, the #NoDAPL hashtag has brought similar awareness to the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline through a Native American community in North Dakota, and just today, it was announced that the U.S. Army was stopping construction on the controversial pipeline.
Clearly, when used for good, social media does have the power to connect, galvanize, and inspire. However, at the same time, social media has proven to have immense power to do exactly the opposite. Cass Sunstein’s article in The Daily We, which we read for class, truly illustrates this negative consequence. Though this article was written in 2001, long before the words “social” and “media” were ever said in conjunction, it essentially predicts the group polarization that social media would bring about just a few short years later. Group polarization is when like-minded people aggregate, and isolation from alternate viewpoints occurs. Tools like customized Google search results and the Facebook filter bubble have, almost against our will, forced us to only come across content that we are interested in and agree with whenever we use the internet. While this may seem attractive, it has actually proven to be dangerous. Solely interacting with content and people who are like us provides constant validation for our views, and pushes us closer and closer to radicalization of them. It seems that you can no longer be a “moderate” supporter of something – you choose a side, stick to it, and surround yourself people on the same side, even unintentionally. This has proven to be politically and socially divisive; pulling people apart rather than bringing them together.
Virality is another example of an aspect of social media that has both positive and negative consequences. When we hear about something “going viral,” it’s usually something funny or clever, like the JK Wedding Video. Sometimes, it’s a heartwarming story that inspires those who hear it, like the man in Texas who held up a sign outside a mosque that said “You Belong” to show support for Muslims in the wake of the 2016 presidential election (I couldn’t go this entire post without mentioning it). However, photos or comments going viral can ruin someone’s life. As we saw with the example of Justine Sacco, one tweet can get you fired, make you a national enemy, and ruin your reputation. Obviously, Sacco should not have said something racist. If this were a comment she had made out loud, however, it’s doubtful that more than a few people would have heard it and/or acted against her because of it. But because of the quick-fire nature of social media virality, hundreds of people watched as her life fell down around her while she sat unknowingly on a 12-hour flight. Personally, I don’t feel that she was deserving of this treatment because of one mistake. Not to mention, another prevalent social media problem is in play here; online harassment, which we also discussed in class with Professor Rob Fichman.
My number one takeaway from this class is that social media has more power than I ever thought possible, and like with anything powerful, it must be used correctly. In fact, I believe executives of these social media companies, like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey of Facebook and Twitter, respectively, have an obligation to make sure their platforms are managed in ways that help, rather than harm, their users and society. If I ever work at a job that requires me to use social media, I will remember what I learned in this class and try to do the same.