By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
With Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testifying on Capitol Hill this week the question about what function social media actually performs in human society is relevant.
Like most new technologies, from the atom bomb to pesticides, cancer drugs, semi-automatic sporting firearms, and smart phones we tend to develop the technology before we develop the social rules to best employ them.
New technology often creates problems, especially in an increasing cultural scarcity of some individual, internal decision making framework to create good judgements that preside over our decisions. A new technology that forces previously distanced and opposing ideologies closer together is bound to create conflict.
That same technology also creates a new opportunity for unity and understanding by erasing distance and compressing time. Within that vast opportunity for unity and understanding the hope for a better future lies. Exactly like Thomas Edison with the light bulb, Mark Zuckerberg has illuminated a new opportunity for unity and understanding through social media- if it is used optimally.
Social media crosses borders with impunity at the speed of light. It does not recognize nationality, race, religion or orientation. In its most unregulated form, it is our individual voices amplified to be heard around the world. We can use those voices to magnify differences, or to recognize our universal needs as a human culture trying to coexist. By analogy, it is forcing the entire world into a small room where we can either learn to get along, or engage in circular arguments that become increasingly draining on our spirit.
A unique feature of social media is that the consumers and creators are the same group. And the ability to create media brings with it responsibility. Almost none of us using social media are trained in using media. All you need is an email address and a password and you are a citizen journalist. That responsibility is significant since, whether you are the BBC World News or Mary Smith from Dubuque, Iowa, you both wield the same 800 X 600 space on a computer screen. And, even though the number of screens you reach varies from billions in the case of the BBC World News to Mary Smith’s five hundred Facebook friends, that face time on a computer screen is still very relevant. From the Arab Spring to gender rights and the U.S. presidential campaign, social media has proven to have the inertia to change the world, one post at a time.
What is the best use of social media like Facebook, both for the individual using it and for those consuming it? Here are some suggestions:
- Share Knowledge.
In bringing the world together we create a communal database rich in new information. From exotic and unusual animals we’ve never heard of, to places we’ve never visited or seen, social media is a conduit to spread knowledge about things we’ve never learned about. This may be the best use of social media, posting a photo of an animal or a machine that not everyone has seen before and sharing that knowledge with your friends.
- Ask Questions.
Social media is a great net for collecting ideas. Asking questions on social media delves into the great repository of collective knowledge that exists in our world. There are pitfalls to that since people can give incorrect or somehow disruptive answers to questions, but having the openness to listen to peoples’ replies and the judgement to interpret them adds value to the responses we can get from questions on social media.
- Listen to Ideas.
The single most valuable thing about social media is the ability to listen in on a great global conversation. While the volume of that conversation is usually maddening, there is value buried in the rising din of posts. One great pitfall of social media, and this is a serious one, is that it can be technically calibrated or manipulated to reinforce our own opinions and beliefs without us realizing us. If you only “Friend” people who agree with you and think like you, your opportunity for learning is limited, but if you seek to challenge your existing beliefs with friends who think differently you are in for a stimulating experience of thought and introspection. Author George Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” It also comes with the individual responsibility to listen.
Social media is at its best in a raw, unfettered, unregulated form. But with that mighty capability comes mighty responsibility. The United Nations created a manifesto for using social without realizing it, before social media was even invented:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
It’s up to us to use that right and these media constructively and with good judgement.