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The Social Media Problem

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Photo by Jason Howie, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by Jason Howie, Creative Commons Licensing.

So, I work at a large, global company’s office. As with most large businesses, email is a vital tool for daily communications. Over the past few days, this communications system has been down. Bad times.

The company also happens to have a corporate-only social networking app that is much like facebook and they have deferred much of their communications to this channel while the email issue is being worked out.

I’ve been watching the conversations within this realm and it presents an excellent microcosmic view of the inherent issue of social media.

Particularly in a ‘crisis’ situation people want answers — any answers. And if they are not getting as much information as they feel they need, they will start filling that void with opinion and speculation. Social networks give folks a space in which to broadcast those opinions and speculations. You get people putting out work around steps and information that has not come from an authoritative voice.

This creates static. Way too much static.

Who is credible? Who is just a moron shouting uneducated and uniformed opinions from the rooftops?

How can we tell the difference?

With social networking we can’t. And that is supposedly the power of it. That’s what has enabled it to spur revolutions and etc, etc, etc. And it is important to decentralize power — take the authority away from the ruthless dictators and corporate shills of network news coverage.

That said, I’d argue that there is still a vital need for authority and an authoritative voice. And as we’ve seen in the social networking sphere, it is usually the person who has either made the most comments, the person who most vocally expresses the fears of the masses, or the person who blinds with the biggest pile of bullshit who wins the authority badge.

In the specific instance that I’m working in, the result of these multiple streams of half-formed opinion functional as fact is that it has taken longer to back track to the root of the issue because the advice that the plebeians were giving to users created more traffic and stressed the already problematic machines. In a real-world view, the effects of this crisis are minimal. No one is in immediate danger of death or dismemberment. The advice being given isn’t going to kill someone.

I was trying to explain to my son last night why it is so important to assess the sender of a message and determine what his or her agenda is before assessing the validity of the message itself. What does the message sender have to gain from the message that he or she is sending? In the nebulous world of the social network one can get so wrapped up in figuring out who the sender is that it is impossible to ever actually get to the message. As such, many people never bother trying to figure out the sender piece and, instead, just take it on faith that the message is pure and right.

And that scares the holy living shit out of me.