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Impacts of Social Media


One of the things that I do not get to do very often, is listen to a podcast live. Most of the time it is because they are recorded during the day so work interferes with listening live. There’s one podcast that I listen to every week, almost always after it is posted, is Accidental Tech Podcast. This week Marco was traveling so they recorded the podcast on Thursday evening, and for once I was able to listen live, because I did not have to get up early on Friday.

In the after show, Marco mentioned that he has been pulling back from Twitter, mostly due to the negative comments and how he cannot have a conversation with his friends, due to the public nature of Twitter. I know I could completely relate, I too have been pulling back from Twitter. I still post and reply, but it is not nearly as much as I have in the past. I went through a week of not posting, my thoughts about that are here.

This got me to thinking, what is the impact of social networking on society. Before we delve too deep into that topic specifically, let us pull back and look at the Internet as a whole.

The Internet provides a multitude of things, it provides an easy way to connect to people whom you never would have met otherwise, collaboration, the ability to find people whom you have lost touch previously, and the ability to access more information than one can consume in a multiple lifetimes. However, it also brings some downsides. These include anonymity, disassociation, and the ability to reenforce your own agenda. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but merely a selection. We are going to look at the impacts of social media, which means looking at the downsides.

Anonymity

The biggest thing that the Internet, and hence social media, bring is the ability to be anonymous. Anonymity is not all bad. Under certain political regimes, being able to be anonymous is a benefit. In certain cases, it protects you from being persecuted for thoughts as well as being a barrier for identification, as in a whistleblowing source, among other benefits. However, it also allows individuals to hide behind a false identity, just for the sake of hiding behind a false identity and to remain anonymous.

Disassociation

The way that we interact with the Internet and World Wide Web (yes, they are different), is through a screen. This interface while currently our primary means of interaction, also brings the downside of distancing ourselves, on a subconscious level, from those on the other end of screen. This disassociation can impact those on the receiving end of something you say. Now, this leads to the discussion of social media in particular.

The Discussion

During the discussion, John brought up the idea that, drive by trollers as we will call them, is akin to having somebody randomly walk by and say “You Suck” from the sidewalk while you are having a conversation on your front porch. I think this is an apt analogy to the way that some people act on the internet.

Do not get me wrong, nobody is perfect. Everybody has their good days and their bad days. I am sure we have all sent off a reply, or comment, to something somebody posted without taking a step back and thinking about how it might affect them. I know I have been on both sides of this situation. Despite this, there is a certain segment of the population whom will always attempt to find somebody who does not agree with their position and they will say something mean spirited, just because that person does not agree.

We all have positions, regardless of how these are formed (my positions are based upon fact, not beliefs), these are the positions that we hold. We are all allowed to disagree. However, saying something negative just to be negative is not constructive nor helpful to anybody.

The biggest aspect that negative commenters forget is that there is a human on the other side of the screen. This person feels just as much as you do. The best way to put it is through the chorus of the song Human by the Pretenders.

Well there’s blood in these veins
And I cry when in pain
I’m only human on the inside
And if looks can deceive
Make it hard to believe
I’m only human on the inside

As a note, I will be using Marco as an example during this, only because it was discussed during the after show. This could apply to anybody. I am not suggesting that Marco do any of this. It is up to him to decide how best to proceed and find what works best for him.

The fact that Marco is pulling back, due to the negative comments, and having it be more difficult to have a conversation with his friends on twitter, is a natural reaction. If someone, or some group, is acting in a way that causes you to not enjoy what you are doing, then you need to stop doing it. Either that, or find a way to come to peace with the issue. This is not fun at all, because the actions of somebody else are causing you to no longer enjoy something you previously enjoyed. One can only takes so much before they end up breaking. This reminds me of the chorus from another song. This one is by the artist Thompson Square. It is titled “Glass”.

We may shine, we may shatter,
We may be picking up the pieces here on after,
We are fragile, we are human,
We are shaped by the light we let through us,
We break fast, cause we are glass.

Possible Solutions

For this example, let us presume that Marco stops using twitter except to post tweets from his blog and updates to Overcast his podcast application. One of the ways that Marco could change would be to move to another discussion mechanism. This could be another social network, say app.net, forums, slack, a private blog or any other mechanism that would meet his needs.

There are some downsides to this. The first is that not everybody would join that medium. The second is that it would become yet another place for all of his friends to check that on top of the existing mechanisms.

Alternatively, he could just revert to using something like Instant messages, or SMS, but this has a downside to being a one-to-one relationship, and would be excluding most individuals due to this. A group solution like Group SMS would work, but that can quickly become intrusive and unwieldy.

Another solution could be to use a group Facebook chat. The downside to this is that it is Facebook and some people may not have a Facebook account and trusting Facebook can become a dicey and divisive answer.

I suggest this last possible solution only because it would sound like something Marco might do. That solution is to come up with his own app that creates a private Twitter that only those that he wants to invite, would be able to use.

Possible Solutions for Twitter

One of Marco’s arguments is that due to the public nature of Twitter, he cannot just have a conversation with his friends over Twitter. There may be a solution, but this would have to come from Twitter because of the nature of the solution. The solution is to have a new type of tweet. For lack of a better term, I will call it the “Following Only” tweet.

This type of tweet would only be visible to those whom the poster follows and nobody else. This type of tweet would not be re-tweetable and all replies would only be seen by those the original poster follows.

An one alternative there could be a different type of tweet, the “no-reply” tweet. This type of tweet would be one that does not allow replies, period. These could just be things that you want to post just to post.

A second alternative, could combine aspects of the previous two concepts. This could be called the “Only Following Reply”. The tweets themselves could be public, but only those that the poster is following could reply to the tweet. This would allow the tweet to be public, but would not invite the “drive by trollers” to comment.

Do not get me wrong, creating either of these types of tweet would be a technological headache, as well as a nightmare for the user interface. However, once created it could have immense positive impacts not just for the users, but for Twitter as a brand.

It could allow a new set of interactions and provide a new dimension to the Twitter service.

Only Solution

Sadly, you cannot change other humans. The only real solution for this, which is already in place, is to provide a mechanism for “Verification”. Twitter has the idea of a verified account. These accounts have more granular controls than standard twitter users. This, I think for somebody like Marco, John and Casey, would be beneficial, even if there was an up-front monetary cost for becoming verified.

If Twitter offered this service for everybody, I do not know if I would sign up for it, because I do not have the reach that the hosts of ATP do, but it would be something that I would consider signing up for.

Final Thoughts

If you have any social media account, it behoves you to think about the following: First, there is a real person behind that account. Second, you do not always know their circumstances nor how what you say will affect them. Three, if you are just going to post something to be mean or because you disagree and you are not being constructive, think twice about posting it. It will likely not be helpful and will only end up making you look bad. There is already enough animosity in the world. There is no need to create even more.

Post Script

I mentioned Marco in a couple of tweets, apologizing for something I said back in his Build and Analyze days. It’s not likely that he remembers it, but I know it was not nice to say, and it was said in haste. I would like to publicly apologize to him here. I know what I posted probably had no effect on his current feelings. Regardless, it was not appropriate to say at the time, and would not be now. Now, I can see that it was just Marco being Marco, but that does not make it right.