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Social Media, Isolation and Privacy: An Oxymoron

People who rant about a lack of privacy and increased isolation on social media sites should ask themselves a simple question: if you are so concerned about your online profile (who sees what you share), why join Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn et al? The purpose of social media is to connect with a wider community than those you may know personally through family, friends and work; in doing so creating a richer online (and offline) experience.

The World Wide Web is only 20 years old – we have in reality less than two decades of knowledge and data to determine how the online world and new communication paradigm is shaping our lives; and even less with social media. Myspace launched in 2004, Facebook and Twitter have become ubiquitous only in the past 2 or 3 years. Yet, more than websites or blogs, social media has created a storm of ‘academic’ concern about not only privacy, but ‘cyber-skepticism’. As posted in the Guardian UK Jan. 22nd 2011:

The way in which people frantically communicate online via Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging can be seen as a form of modern madness, according to a leading American sociologist.

“A behaviour that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes in her new book, Alone Together, which is leading an attack on the information age…

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.


Privacy is over-rated

The issue for sociologists, educators, researchers and prognosticators is the rapidly changing nature of how individuals connect, and what personal information people are more-or-less willing to share. The detractors of social media view a new paradigm of texts, tweets and Facebook posts as somehow isolating people from each other, rather than what is the reality for the vast majority of ‘new media’ users – more, and stronger connections. Those same detractors also generally espouse the sharing of personal information on social media profiles as a threat to personal integrity – which is true if the user is unaware of what is being shared, and to whom, but not an issue at all if the Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter user is perfectly happy with sharing settings. In fact, for the vast majority of online social media users, sharing certain personal information such as location (city and country), professional details, likes and dislikes leads to an enhanced and wider community.

The ‘isolation’ syndrome is a storm in a teacup. The picture painted by some, of the real life socially inept person hiding alone in a basement, conversing only through social media is certainly not the experience of most. In fact, for that small group, who lack the skills to function normally in ‘real-life’ society (and, no doubt there are some), could it not be said they are finding a community and a means of communicating within their comfort zone? Rather than hiding, and experiencing ‘life’ through TV and video games. Social media combats isolation.

To further that point, the current trend in social media (and one which I presume will progress) is moving online connections to real-life meetings. This is certainly true with the proliferation of Facebook event pages, LinkedIn groups, and Tweetups – all forms of using social media platforms to create, announce and manage the possibilities of moving online communities to face-to-face.

Privacy – while being somewhat flippant about the frenetic concern over online privacy, it is certainly true that a ‘happy medium’ is required to get the most out of social media while providing some level of individual protection. Not sharing any ‘true’ or relevant information on social media profiles beggars the point of the platform. It is like attending a cocktail party with a paper bag over your head, inserting earplugs, and standing in the corner not talking to anyone. What’s the point? The Sophos Guide is a good start to understanding Facebook settings (which seem to be the greatest concern to users and regulators). An academic paper by Susan Barnes is a decent overview of the ongoing battle between social media privacy issues and regulation.

Isolation – As a number of researchers and academics have pointed out to me, isolating and determining a consequential social trend (positive or negative) requires at least 10 years of hard data. Online social media platforms are still embryonic, and while many (like Facebook and Twitter) have hundreds of millions of active users, there simply is not enough information to justify the claims of Sherry Turkle or Nicholas Carr (among many others). Ironically their works have only gained traction through social media.

To conclude: Social Media is ‘social’. It’s about sharing, creating, connecting and experiencing. No different than attending a party or ‘mixer’. In ‘real life’ we sum up new connections through basic information: what do you do? where did you go to school? are you married? The conversation determines if there is continuing interest – personal, political, business.

Sharing some of that information online opens a new world.

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