Tuesday, March 9, 2010

If Thieves Can Do It So Can You: A Case for the Potential of Social Media

The story about the New York City bike messenger who used Twitter to find his stolen bike has been making the rounds on the Internet. Also making the digital rounds of late is the website PleaseRobMe.com, which is a glorified Twitter list of people who choose to disclose that they aren't home. The theory behind this site is that people are all too willing to share information on social media sites and give little thought to how this information might be harvested and used. In this case, would-be thieves could case this list and identify prime targets to burglarize. For me, PleaseRobMe.com both raises an important point regarding the digital management of personal information, and adds to the uncertainty surrounding the role and use of digital media in our lives. Yes, we need to be aware of what we're sharing and the digital image it creates (i.e., your digital persona), but fear of using this technology will only increase its misuse and delay its proper implementation in daily life. The bike messenger story adds a nice balance to this view.

Digital and social media are here to stay, and are quickly changing the ways we interact and connect with each other. Fear or mistrust of social media, if not properly countered with education, will not detract from its reach, but will impact the quality of the interactions. Discussions concerning netiquette are important, as is an awareness concerning how shared information can be used and how to properly manage and control different aspects of personal networks. Fear and uncertainty minimizes the user's ability to wield the social web effectively. The power of connectivity is immense and the lesson that it can hurt you is not something that should be overlooked, but users should not forget that they have the upper hand right now: As businesses scramble to understand the social web audience, it is the users who are in the position to guide the development of this technology as something that will be meaningful to them and not something that they are fed as part of a marketing tool. As a result, shying away from this technology without learning how to awaken its potential forces the user to relinquish ownership of his or her network, which opens the user up to external interlopers.

The bike messenger story demonstrates how connectivity can be mobilized—it's a story where the potential power of the social web shines through. Hopefully users can take away the message that we are a community that is united virtually, but with a very physical presence in the world. It reduces the strangeness of strangers in a world where we are taught that mistrust is the norm. While proper precautions should be taken to safeguard sensitive information, the social web is a source for information as well as support. If the idea that you only connect to people you have an interest in holds true, then your network is one that cares about your well-being. So if you lose your bike, or your book, or something of greater value, or need advice or a recommendation, because your network is invested in you, you'll activate a group of people who want to help you find a resolution. This raises the issue of network management, which I  believe is actually key to the strength and survival of the social web. Network management does away with auto-following and friending everyone you met at happy hour last night. It means making meaningful connections, and creating a holding pattern for people you may want to give greater access to your life. Until users learn how to actively manage the members of their network—to draw distinctions between the different tiers of connections via privacy settings—the individual's social network will be inefficient and weak. 

Social media is not to be feared. If would-be thieves can harness the power of the social web, there's no reason users cannot claim this same power for their own purposes. We cannot afford not to understand this technology, both personally and professionally.

How do you see the social web evolving in the future? What will it take to raise an awareness of netiquette and social power via the web?

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