Social Media: Plus ça change; plus c’est la même chose

The recent case of a juror being jailed for contacting one of the defendants in a court case has led to more of those scare story headlines about the evils of the internet. Something which brought me up short about it, was when I saw a TV interview with the defendant involved who said something like “I knew we shouldn’t contact each other, but I didn’t know it applied to Facebook”.

There are two aspects to social media that I think this highlights. The first is, that it’s just another communication channel. I often say to people, don’t say anything on social media platforms that you wouldn’t be happy with saying face-to-face, on the telephone, or in the pages of the local newspaper. Just because it’s a relatively new platform, does not mean that the rules of politeness, privacy, professionalism, and common sense have changed.

But, on the other hand, I can’t ignore that, in many ways, social media has changed some of the rules. It could be said that is has made it so much easier to make mistakes, and puts a whole new range of traps in people’s way. Take the juror contact case as an example. Social Media has made it so much easier to track people down. Yes, this sort of thing could have happened in earlier times, but, would the juror have taken the time to find out how to contact the defendant? Would they perhaps have sought out a copy of the local telephone book, found the right name, and called them at a time when they were in? That would have both probably have been too difficult to make it worth the bother, and would have put in place a number of steps each of which could have given them pause to think about whether this was the right thing to be doing. The ease of contacting someone through social media potentially removes the opportunity for reflection on whether the contact is actually a good idea.

The “internet is evil” stories are rubbish. Any tool is only as good as the uses it is put to. But, all this highlights the care that needs to be taken both by users of social media, and by anyone who has reason to be concerned about how people might interact with each other. Focusing on the tools is not helpful. Recently, while in Manchester, I saw a local newspaper headline suggesting Facebook had blocked an attempt to shut down a local fast food outlet. “Wow,” I thought, “Mark Zuckerberg must really like Manchester burgers”.  Of course, the real story was that a campaign organised via a Facebook group had achieved that particular objective, not Facebook itself. This was another example of the media thinking it is the tools and the platforms that drive the interaction, rather than the people using them.

I eagerly anticipate the day when we forget the technology and remember it’s all about people.

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