Elka Popova's Blog

On Social Networking and Social Responsibility

02 Jan 2013 | by Elka Popova
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As I busily shared greetings, thoughts, and photos on Facebook during the holiday season, I decided to write a post about the impact of social media and social networking on our lives today. Then I remembered an article I had posted about three years ago on a site that no longer exists. I searched for the draft on my computer and, as I read it, I found most of the ideas still relevant. Here is my article from January 2010 (with only a few minor edits):

"A couple of years ago, a friend, quite obsessed with conspiracy theories, sent me a video (unfortunately, the link no longer works) about Sigmund Freud, his daughter Anna, and his nephew Edward Bernays and the impact of their theories on modern marketing and public relations. My friend’s takeway from the video was that we are being constantly psychologically manipulated and deceived by those in power—politicians, corporations, media, aliens, etc.  I do not subscribe to global or otherwise large-scale conspiracy theories (color me naïve), but I enjoyed the video because I take interest in Freud and Jung, and the way their theories have been applied in social studies and comparative mythologies and how they have impacted the works of great minds such as James Frazer and Joseph Campbell.

The premise of the documentary is that modern marketing and public relations pioneered by Edward Bernays reduced individuals to passive, brainless consumers with little ability to pass judgments or make decisions on their own. As social networking rapidly penetrates society and I keep pondering over how it will eventually impact individuals, businesses and the various aspects of social life, I remembered this video and watched it again.

I personally believe that social interactions are inherently “manipulative” in nature—aimed at influencing other people’s perception of ourselves, of others, of concepts and various natural and social phenomena. It is our personal responsibility, not that of others, to decide to what extent we will allow ourselves to be influenced. With the exception of blatant, inaccurate propaganda (e.g. smoking is good for your health) or brutal enforcement of ideas (e.g. the crusades, the inquisition, etc.), the rest, in my opinion, is perfectly normal, natural human behavior. In fact, people have engaged in “marketing” activities, “public relations” and various forms of propaganda since the early days of humanity, only the means have changed over the years. Myths, rituals and religions were created for the purposes of disseminating collective wisdom and promoting values, as well as for entertaining people. In today’s society, those have been replaced by books and magazines (printed media), television, and most recently—the Internet and social media.

Have common people become less or more powerful participants in the process of exchanging ideas and impacting others in the way they think and behave? I believe that, in democratic societies at least, individuals are becoming increasingly better informed and empowered through improving literacy levels and growing availability of affordable means of communications. It is the Internet, however, that has truly democratized access to information and entertainment. Now social networking is making us even more powerful participants in creating social value by sharing ideas with a large number of people dispersed over vast geographic areas. In the distant past, people gathered around the shaman to hear prophecies, find cures for various illnesses or just for a relaxing time with songs and dances. Now we have Facebook, Twitter, Youtube …

This new social experience comes with certain implications that we might wish to consider prior to engaging in further social activities.

Opportunities to influence our social environment: It is obvious that the Internet and social media are creating opportunities for the common man to more freely (and arguably, more effectively) voice his ideas and concerns. Even if one person alone cannot have a significant impact on a stock price, a movie rating or a company reputation, the collective voice of the masses can make a big difference. This has tremendous implications for how social media is and can be used for marketing and customer service. “Word of mouth” will acquire a completely new meaning in the era of social networking!

Creation of new myths, beliefs, and rituals: We need to acknowledge that, as social media participants, we will become the creators of new urban legends (myths) and social practices (rituals). We may not even realize that, occasionally, we will fall prey to self-fulfilling prophecies as we systematically and collectively enforce a belief. To bring this closer to home, let’s take the concept of Unified Communications (UC) as an example. While UC certainly has the promise of delivering cost-efficiency and productivity benefits to business users, vendors, analysts, and media are effectively contributing to its becoming a more immediate and tangible reality by keeping its definition fluid and continuously ascertaining it as a “de facto” trend, rather than just a vision or a theoretical construct. But even simpler than that—isn't it amazing how we have become used to expressing our opinion or even simply acknowledging that we have read something by pressing a "Like" button? We instinctively look for a "Like" button everywhere we go on the Internet.

Emergence of new fears and conspiracy theories: It will not be long before social networking creates a fertile ground for new fears and conspiracy theories to emerge. Some people are already worried about too much exposure, identity theft, etc. These fears will grow into more serious concerns about the possibility of increasing negative influences on children and young adults that will be ever harder to monitor and control. Today, parents typically make sure they know their children’s friends and their friends’ families, but how will they know who’s behind a social networking pseudonym? The fear of companies, sects, the government, aliens, etc. now being able to reach individuals in all kinds of new and powerful ways is likely to cause people to alter their behavior, look for counter-measures, and seek for certain policies to be implemented in order to ensure at least minimal identity and security protection. Therefore, both individuals and businesses using social media will need to be very careful about what information they disseminate and how to avoid possible backlash.

The need for greater social responsibility: The sheer power of the Internet and social media and networking requires a new sense of responsibility from all contributors. While I stated earlier that it is everyone’s responsibility to control the extent to which they are impacted by new media, we should not forget that we are parents, employees, and consumers. As such, we have a responsibility to protect our children, companies, and other consumers like us from the spread of erroneous information and unhealthy beliefs.

In debates over the role and purpose of art, I have maintained a position that it does not need to be educational or elevating—after all, it is just an expression of the artist’s vision. I suppose that the same theory applies to social media, but even if we don’t want to control the content (that would be somewhat undemocratic), we still need some basic rules of engagement or else this may be the beginning of chaos.  As Jean-Jacque Rousseau discovered many years ago, man is inherently greedy, jealous, violent, etc.—i.e. evil in all kinds of ways—but he finds it necessary to sign a “social contract” (i.e. behave in certain socially appropriate ways) in order to be able to peacefully co-habit the Earth with other men and enjoy the numerous benefits of social (versus primitive, isolated) life. I will end this post with one of his quotes to give us all some further food for thought.

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” "