Social Media is changing the world – lessons in discernment

| January 12, 2015

Our professional and private lives have changed significantly with the ubiquity of social media. Sue Ellson says we have gained far more than we have lost, but we still need to be discerning in how we use it.

The first time I was introduced to a computer at work in the 1980s, I was told to just turn it on and go for it. I said, but I can’t, I know nothing about it. I was told to just give it a go. I said no, I can’t, I know nothing about it. This went on a few times before I was shown how to use it – well, at least a few steps anyway.

Fortunately for me, I started my working career before computers were commonplace. Paper files, card box diary systems and formal procedure manuals kept us employees operating on the straight and narrow.

The newspaper was written by paid journalists whose wages were subsidised by classified advertisements for jobs, cars, houses and various miscellaneous items. At high school, I remember going to the library and making fun of the ads in the personals columns with my teenage friends.

The luxury of that era was that I was brought up with a moral code and a sense of what was right, wrong and a load of poppycock. A good sub-editor and editor ensured that journalism had a chance to tell a reliably researched story (if I had time to read the newspaper that is!). By reading the newspaper, particularly the Early General News (EGN) section, I gained a broad glimpse of what was happening locally and internationally.

Fast track to 2015 and a lot has changed. Fortunately for me, I still have a moral compass. Even more fortunately, I have made an effort to develop my digital literacy and am as cognisant as possible of the choices I am making when I do something online.

However, I know that there are an awful lot of people, both young and old, who do not have the same levels of discernment. They are completely unaware of how their content is being tracked, manipulated, distorted and narrowed via the new social media world.

Let’s look at a few examples.

  1. Gmail

Did you know that if you log in to your Gmail account (and leave it logged in whilst you are using Google Chrome), every single thing you are doing is being recorded and tracked by Google? This helps them select the advertisements that you see when you are browsing to try and increase the odds of you clicking and generating revenue for them.

Not only that, if you are connected to people via Google+ and you start looking for a plumber and one of your connections is a friend of a plumber, then this plumber’s details have a chance of appearing before you. This could be a good thing if they are a good plumber, but it doesn’t necessarily give you a ‘fresh’ result search.

To be discerning – log in to Gmail to check your emails then log out before you do anything else.

  1. YouTube

Also owned by Google, it is now asking you to login every time you visit and again, wants to track your activity, make suggestions and line up the best paying ads. You may be happy with the recommendations but I have to say, I find this a bit creepy. Especially if you are in a depressive mood and you are watching melancholy videos – if you keep watching those, you may never get out of it.

To be discerning – if you can’t watch something without logging in, make sure you mix up your viewing so that you still have a chance to have exposure to a wider variety of content.

  1. Twitter

A 140 character statement has a very high risk of being misinterpreted. Even when you add a link to the ‘real’ story, how many people just look at the picture and react with another tweet? How reliable is the information source? Is it just another piece of propaganda that you are being swept into? A few hash tags (subjects) on Twitter have been found to have suspicious origins and have been motivated by a very clever PR professional.

To be discerning – before you buy into a hash tag and follow the pack, make sure you are informed about its origins, validity and purpose before you follow the masses and get swept into the ridiculous.

  1. Facebook

Like many other people, I am on Facebook and choose to be for business purposes but I also manage to keep up to date with what a few friends and family members are doing. That said, I did a little experiment. After posting a variety of what I thought were very helpful and interesting information posts and getting no response, I decided to post a photo of me with my new haircut. All of a sudden, I got more likes for one post than I had for at least the previous 25 posts.

This really alarmed me. If I wasn’t discerning, I could easily fall victim to posting content that is ‘liked’ rather than content that is ‘me.’ To be perfectly frank, I am not interested in seeing photos of myself online – and why should I be? How does this help anyone? What value does it bring? I definitely wouldn’t be posting photos of my children to get some brownie points for myself (well I did when my daughter played in a concert and my son won an award – but they are old enough for me to ask their permission before I posted it and I was proud of them!)

To be discerning – post authentically. Do not be dragged into the false illusions that are created when people like or comment on particular items. Decide what your purpose is on Facebook and be careful – because it will be checked if you ever apply for a job.

  1. LinkedIn

This platform is a personal favourite of mine. However, it has changed the employment market in extremely significant ways. Firstly, it has all but wiped out job advertisements in newspapers and jobs websites (particularly in the mid to senior levels) and it has decimated the recruitment industry as employers go fishing for employees directly on the platform.

Also, if you sync your contacts with LinkedIn, all of your correspondence with those people ends up on the LinkedIn platform.

To be discerning – do not automatically say yes to the options that are given to you when you are on the platform. Make an effort to understand what is being offered and how it works before you select okay.

  1. Private blogs and websites

There is an awful tendency for people who put a search into Google and then get a result that has those keywords to automatically believe what is written on the screen. As with any research process, it is up to you, the researcher to check the validity of that research result.

Is it well referenced? Is the same message shared across multiple locations? Is the information you are reading reliable or hysterical? Is it statistically relevant (and not just a bunch of anecdotes from someone with a high profile or your uninformed best friend)? You can treat it as a few clues on the topic before you prepare a list of questions that you put to three professionals who you pay for their opinion (remembering of course that they have completed study and have experience so probably know a lot more about the topic than you do after a few Google searches).

To be discerning – don’t act on anecdotes, no matter how seductive they appear or how time poor you are. For significant decisions or opinions on particular matters, make sure your research is thorough and where necessary, talk to at least three experts (who you also pay for their advice, it will be worth it).

  1. Traditional newspapers and publishers

The good quality publications may have better quality editorial control than others. It really concerns me that inexperienced journalists and lay people with a mobile phone recording can provide ‘evidence’ or ‘content’ for an official report. Where is the editor who brings together a team to decide how a serious matter is investigated and select the best journalist for the job who can ensure that the victims are interviewed sensitively? Where is the moral ground drawn on what is appropriate to publish immediately (think of those poor plane crash relatives seeing a body being recovered from the ocean live to air without fair warning).

These publications run on minimal budgets thanks to the loss of revenue from classifieds and thanks to so much information being ‘free’ and on demand via Google. The previous audiences are often reluctant to pay for a subscription or a printed publication. Again, this reduces the field of vision of the general population and reduces our ability to be generalists and our ability to hold general conversations on a variety of topics.

To be discerning – do not limit your content consumption to your own areas of interest. Remember to read widely and on topics that can be incorporated into everyday discussion with others.

  1. The Cloud

The cloud allows you to store files on a remote computer server and then access them from any device you choose. Sure, if you want to keep naked photos of you and a celebrity on there, someone may want to hack into the cloud and get them, but in reality, if you are connected to the internet frequently, a hacker could probably get on to your home computer a lot quicker! If they broke into your house and stole your computer and hard drives, it could be even faster!

To be discerning – evaluate the risk. Would it be worse for you if your house burnt down and you lost all of your family photos? Is it convenient to have your files on the Cloud as well as your laptop when your laptop suffers water damage and cannot be used again? If you are very concerned about some files, password protect them.

  1. Privacy

If you think you have privacy any more, forget it. The police, if given video footage, can track you to an incident by the photograph on your driver’s license. Your mobile phone is virtually a personal tracking device recording everywhere you go (if you take it with you – which is how they have found murder victims). Every time you give away your date of birth and other personal information, you have a chance of being imitated by someone else.

To be discerning – unless absolutely necessary for a government department, medical record or bank account, do not give away your real date of birth. I use the 1st of January of the year I was born (so I can remember it) whenever this information is required to be completed in an online form. Sure, no one says Happy Birthday to me on Facebook on my real birthday, but I would rather keep my identity safe even if I cannot keep my privacy.

Also, on this topic, be realistic. In truth, if someone really wanted to find out where you live, they would find a way, whether or not you have a silent telephone number or not. Unless you seriously have something to hide, try not to worry about it. In days gone by, people used to look over the fence!

  1. Electronic Devices

We now have mobile phones, tablets, netbooks, laptops, desktops, televisions and cinemas that put a screen in front of us for a significant part of our day – every day. Over the last 10 years, I have seen a significant shift in the amount of time we spend without screen distractions and actually talking to one another.

As 70% of the population receives information well in the visual format, it is certainly catering to the masses. Unfortunately, I also believe that it is seducing the masses and converting the other 30% who ‘must’ use a screen to get by in life.

To be discerning – turn off all the screens in your life on a regular basis. Stop reducing every message to characters. So much more can be achieved in a conversation – by voice or in person. Difficult information must be shared personally if at all possible. Time needs to be set aside to make time to communicate face to face or even just listen to music. After all, we are social beings and our need to connect makes us human.

In conclusion

After reading this article, you may feel even more concerned about ‘what else’ is going on that you don’t know about. To be perfectly honest, I am not even going to try and work that out.

What I would like to achieve is to encourage you to be a little more discerning before you either put your head in the sand (and never ask for information) or you become obsessed with finding out what is happening (it is an endless chase and not worth pursuing because you can’t stop it – we won’t be going backwards any time soon).

To be discerning, think about the following:

. What is my purpose (and is this being achieved)?

. Is this information helpful, accurate and reliable?

. Am I making an informed choice and am I aware enough?

To be frank, I think someone with a good moral code has a much better chance of making the correct online choice than someone who seeks something for nothing. These people are at the highest risk of being ripped off.

People who are willing to take the high moral ground even if they do not completely understand the product or service on offer, who only act on good quality research, who make informed choices and remain relatively digitally literate – these are the people that will remain discerning, informed and effective members of our modern society.

Our policy makers need to ensure that the more marginalised members of our society are not trapped by these simple mistakes.

The huge benefit of social media is that it has democratised so many aspects of our society. I, as one individual, have a wonderful opportunity to share this content with you and empower you in some small way. If you share it, you can empower someone else. I am not being held back by a media mogul who will only publish in a newspaper with a picture of a topless woman on page three.

There are now many citizens in the world who are changing the tide and creating more democratic societies where people are not criticised for their ability, race, gender or faith – and they often achieve these goals through social media and the online world.

The younger generation is willing to click a few buttons to share their ideas. The older generation may miss the opportunity to share their wisdom if they don’t do that.

My personal view is that we have gained far more than we have lost, but we still need to be discerning. I trust that after reading this article, you can be even more discerning and productive in the future.