The Value of Social Network Sites

I became a curmudgeon way before my time. For about five years, I rode the social media skepticism wagon. I had Facebook and Twitter accounts but used them sparsely. My concern stemmed from the privacy implications of posting so much information about ourselves online. I also felt web-mediated communication took people away from lively, meandering face-to-face or telephone conversations, away from the world around them. Arab media researcher Donatella Della Ratta captured this anti-screen sentiment in a different context — crisis reporting via social media.

“If we can document and verify things remotely, only using social media, like Andy [Carvin] and Eliot [Higgins] do, well then why spending [sic] so many years and hours and hours of hard study to understand a language, a culture?”

Della Ratta has a point. Staring at a screen cannot replace living a life. But we cannot discount the value that social network sites bring to our lives. Last fall I began using Twitter more often. The more I used it, the more I gained. I got to know people I’d briefly spoken to in person. I interacted with new people. If nothing else, logging on guaranteed me a few interesting articles to read.

From Cliff Lampe’s e-Communities course, I learned about the deep human need that online connection fulfills. I realized that online communication sometimes offers greater benefit than face-to-face communication. Between readings, lectures, and analysis of various online communities, I gained respect for social network sites.

A recent conversation at work cemented my belief in the value of online interaction, and it involved the same Donatella Della Ratta. She spoke to a group of interns and staff about her current research on the role of memes in the Syrian conflict. Fellow intern Leigh Graham related what Della Ratta saw in Syria to her own fieldwork and Saudi Arabia. As they exchanged thoughts, this hit me: I live in a place where I’m free to go wherever I want, talk to whomever I want, and say whatever I want. I can wake up at 4 a.m., meet a friend at 7-11, and chat over slurpees. I wouldn’t, but I can. This isn’t always the case in other parts of the world.

When people cannot gather publicly because war ravages the public space around them or their government outright forbids it, they turn to the Web. Young people in Gaza are tech-savvy because they have nothing else to do with their time, Della Ratta said. Saudi Arabians share more information online than anyone else in the world, which makes sense given the country’s 13 million women live with their independence severely constrained, Graham explained. Sites such as Facebook allow people to communicate with others without leaving the house.

As the Prism news reminds us, sites such as Facebook also operate under the laws of the United States. This plus the fact that online communication means so much to so many people underscores our need for a national, public debate about how other people, whether government officials or corporate vice presidents, use our data. As Rebecca MacKinnon wrote in “Consent of the Networked,” what people in charge believe matters:

“Critics are concerned that Facebook’s core ideology — that all people should be transparent and public about their online identity and social relationships — is the product of a corporate culture based on the life experiences of relatively sheltered and affluent Americans who may be well intentioned but have never experienced genuine social, political, religious, or sexual vulnerability.”

Practically speaking, we can’t abandon the Internet. We as citizens must talk about about how much power over our data we want to give the government or private companies. The answer to these questions isn’t get off Facebook or stop sending email. As I realized this year and during this conversation, we cannot ignore the tremendous benefits that connection on social network sites offers.

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