05May

Social media has created an artificial world but not everyone's benefitting

In a previous post, freelance copywriter and editor Rachel Pictor explored the relationship between individuals and the Internet, with an emphasis on social media in the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. She concluded that social media performs a lot of functions which fulfil the needs of individuals, enabling them to interact, do business and act creatively and spontaneously.

In the second of this two-part series, Rachel investigates the relationship between social media and organisations. What is the interaction like between businesses or governments and social media? Has social media become a parasite or have we achieved a symbiotic balance?

The gap between first and third world poverty is well known. Less considered is the resultant gap in technology with some countries racing ahead and others lagging behind. Does first world access to social media make a difference to our bottom line?

Organisations come in different types but all are profit driven, for their own continuation and growth and for the good of the country they belong to. This includes businesses, governments and charities. Money is seen as the key to improving our standard of living and every penny invested is aimed, either directly at making more money or going directly towards the improvement of people’s lives. If money is such a huge part of all organisations’ aims what has that got to do with social media?

Remember Trading Places?

It’s a film where two men’s fortunes are switched because of a cruel bet played by one of the men’s employers. The rich man with the privileged lifestyle becomes poor and homeless and vice versa. Then they work together to get revenge by reducing the employers – the cruel men with all the power and money – to bankruptcy. They achieve this through misinformation, giving the employers a false crop report to make them invest heavily in frozen concentrated orange juice. When the real orange crop report is published, the prices crash and the whole company is wrecked.

Social media is a hive of information, misinformation, leaks, rumours, opinions and lies. It could result in an embarrassing piece of negative PR, a marketing campaign that gets slated, a jail term, loss of public confidence, and the end of a business or political leader.

Transparency

Transparency has become a bit of a buzz word in the UK of late. The coalition Government has taken steps to disassociate themselves with previous governmental misdemeanours such as the expenses scandal, Iraq invasion and the death of Dr David Kelly. Whatever you think of these issues, or however you apportion blame, they all contributed to a massive loss of confidence in the ruling party which contributed to its downfall.

With social media stories spread fast. Sometimes stories are on Twitter before they reach the newspapers and television reports, such as the recent death of Osama Bin Laden. Transparency has become the key to winning trust and avoiding scandal. It’s a trend perfectly suited to web 2.0’s propensity for gossip and sharing.

In the UK, it is not uncommon for politicians and members of parliament to be active on Twitter and Facebook, which has on occasion lead to a sacking or enforced resignation.

Freedom of speech

In many countries, freedom of speech is a basic human right and this includes access to social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Mixi.

In times of crisis, or where there is a perceived or potential crisis, some countries view access to social media as a threat. In China for example, they block Facebook as a perceived threat to the reigning ideology communism. In Libya, the Internet was partly blocked due to the role Facebook groups were believed to have played in similar situations in Egypt and Tunisia.

The need for privacy

International diplomacy demands privacy. The very nature of their position requires them to use tact and considered judgement rather than personal opinions and knee-jerk reactions. Like an office junior who slates the boss on their Facebook page, if a diplomat is caught saying the wrong thing it can be disastrous. The office junior may get fired and the organisation they worked for will quietly move on. For the diplomat, an important relationship could be severed which throws their country’s economy into turmoil.

WikiLeaks is a great example of this, and has demonstrated the potential open governments, and also change the way politicians operate across international relations.

Trade

With good diplomacy comes global trade and strong international ties. Many organisations rely on these relationships for their continued success. Materials and products can be imported or exported, labour can be outsourced at reduced rates and currencies rise and fall based on each country’s overall success.

Social media can bring new prospects, highlight market trends and encourage (or discourage) investments.

Conclusion

Social media feeds economies and is now an industry in its own right, with many practitioners and consultancies trading successfully, maintaining a symbiotic relationship, i.e. putting good stuff in and getting good stuff out. Its reliance on technology keeps it largely in the province of a privileged ‘few’ and its true benefits are reserved for those who can use it without starting a scandal.

It may be some time before third world countries and those countries who are (rightly or wrongly) openly paranoid may feel the effects of joining the social media community.