The hidden dangers of social networking
I’ll admit that I’m hooked on the whole social networking thing. In fact, it was online communities that took me online years before the internet as we know it even existed, when modems were large and slow and FidoNet and Micronet ruled.
Back in those pre-web days of the BBS there wasn’t a great deal of media interest – we got lumped in with the radio hams and CB nuts, nerds who chatted to other nerds and played weird text-based online fantasy games. They were right of course, but that didn’t really bother us.
Things are so different 20 years on, as the Red Tops throw bricks at pretty much every aspect of online life because it sells a few more copies of their celebrity scandal rags.
And regrettably even those who should know better also seem to be jumping on this negative bandwagon. Consider Baroness Susan Greenfield, a highly respected neuroscientist who has recently been telling a House of Lords committee that social networking is such a dangerous technology that it could lead to the human mind of the mid-21st century becoming “infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity”. Sounds more like the average member of the House of Lords or tabloid journalist to me.
I’ve recently become a grandparent for the first time, but I have no intention of getting on a soapbox and complaining that young people should stop Tweeting and start writing letters in mauve ink, joining debating societies or painting bison on the walls of caves. Communication methods change, get over it.
Technology is driving ever more rapid change, and I personally hate the way text messaging has created a new “lazy shorthand” that’s spread way beyond the mobile phone handset – it irritates me wherever I go, but there’s little point in me rumbling that modern society is about to collapse and it’s all the fault of SMS. And there’s just as little point getting worked up by pontificating about the teenage attention spans of the Twitter generation.
So what is social networking all about? Well, it can help broaden your identity and sense of self through online relationships, sharing of ideas and even just having good old-fashioned fun, but when all’s said and done and all media puffery is stripped away it’s really just another way of talking to people, enjoying a friendly chat, and keeping in touch with a circle of friends and acquaintances. And that’s where the real problems start.
In my opinion, warning about security and the unsocial side of social networks are more relevant than the danger of killing brain cells – it’s more to do with killing common sense. I love the idea that you can become “friends” with people you might otherwise never have met and conversed with in the real world.
A great example is the King of Twitter Stephen Fry (http://twitter.com/stephenfry), who might not have quite as many followers as Barack Obama but has the distinct advantage that he actually does post daily messages and enter into conversations. The real trouble is, how do you know the people you talk to are who they say they are?
This isn’t a new online problem of course, as the issue of proving identity has been with us from the very start of the internet. That sexy young blonde in the chatroom is statistically more likely to be a fat, balding plumber, but we somehow still bestow our trust on social networks in a rather naive way.