Glass Half Empty: Reflections on Social Media & Digital Business

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.

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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.

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The Queen of Social Media herself doing the #IceBucketChallenge.

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.

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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.

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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.

7 comments

  1. skuchma215 · ·

    Great post! While I don’t entirely share your pessimistic view on social media, you definitely provide more than ample evidence to argue how harmful the effects of social media can be. I will always remember the example of Justine Sacco as the pinnacle of how people can run rampant with Social Media. I think its hard for execs like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to balance the desire to protect their users and the desire to protect the freedom of speech of their users. No one wants their website to be a breeding ground for hateful comments, misinformation and bullying, but they also don’t want to enact limiting, somewhat authoritarian restrictions.

  2. emmaharney21 · ·

    Great summary of the class! I really enjoyed the examples that you chose to highlight. I had not previously seen that tweet from Justine Sacco. I think that is incredibly powerful in articulating your point on the negative effects of social media. I think that Justine is a great example of how the online mob mentality can make us chuckle for a moment on this side of a computer screen, but ruin someone’s life on the other.

    I also really enjoyed how you provided really fantastic examples of the positive idea of social media, such as the ice bucket challenge. This shows that when people come together for something good, the power of networks can have incredible effects. I also like how you touched on a more modern example of the pipeline. I touched on a similar concept in my post about how there are negative effects of social media but that we also have the potential to create greatness. I specifically wrote about the Dove Self-Esteem campaign and the amazing things that they are doing through social media. I even chose to participate in the movement for the remainder of class!

    I agree completely that social media is as good as it’s users intentions and that it can be a force for good or a force for evil. Great post!

  3. adawsisys · ·

    Nice post! At the beginning of the semester I had a generally negative view of social media. Now my opinion of social media is still slightly negative, but it has improved. One aspect of social media that you discussed in your post and that I overlooked at the beginning of the semester was the power and importance of social media. I see it as a tool that can not be overlooked or ignored, even if it is unpleasant at times. Looking at the examples in your blog post, and the many others that we discussed in class, actions on social media can have a tremendous impact in both positive and negative directions. I would still consider social media a new tool; hopefully as time passes we will learn from the mistakes, and find new ways to use it to make a positive impact.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. You did a great job of looking at both the up and downsides of social media and definitely put forward a strong argument for the down outweighing the up. It seems like a pretty utilitarian point of view, and I share your hesitation on whether social media is advantageous for the world as a whole. That said, when it comes to digital technology in general, I’m quicker to think that it is net good for the world. The innovations behind things like electric cars are going to enable us to dramatically cut down on traffic deaths and emissions, allegedly. Also, an insane amount of value has been created by major tech companies in economic terms. At the end of the day, however, it seems like you can’t have the good without the bad, and we can’t overlook our responsibility to mitigate the harmful sides of the technology we use.

  5. Nice post. I like the shift from the positive to the negative framing. I tend to go for neutral, but you make a good point here.

  6. alinacasari · ·

    Great post! I completely agree with you about your initial thoughts. I too expected this to be more of a “how to” style class. I was surprised when class started how different the course actually was. Your post does a really good job of evaluating both the positive and negative aspects of social media. Group polarization is a real problem that I think we need to come up with a solution for. The election was an absolutely shocking event, but it really showed me how much of a social media filter bubble I live in.

    Your example of Justine Sacco is kind of heartbreaking. It reminds me that for all the good social media can do with things like the ice bucket challenge, the negativity is also so easy to come by. I agree that social media is powerful! I really hope that the takeaways I learned from this class will help me in the future when deciding what I want to share with my friends online (AKA the entire world it seems). Privacy is something I hadn’t considered too heavily before, but after seeing how much other information is available just based on a few random posts, I’ve begun rethinking what I want to share. I always say I’m not ashamed of anything I post, but I am scared of people being able to learn so much more about me based on judging my social media. The example from a reading my group did last week showed an employer searching a woman on FB, realizing she had a child, and then being less likely to hire her. This class made me realize that my posts being appropriate or not is not the only consideration to what I should share. Excellent job evaluating social media and digital business!

  7. Nice post! It’s really crazy how extreme social media can get, and as the often pacifist, it is often very difficult to stay neutral when so many people have radically opposing views that are loudly expressed on social media (especially during 2016). I don’t really know who Justine Sacco is, but that’s terrifying to think that your individual opinion (to which you have a constitutional right to express) can bring harm to both you and so many people you know if viewed negatively by critical netizens.

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