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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

The Problem with Our Relationships With/Through Social Media

The fact that we are almost constantly connected and streaming our consciousness through social apps, I think, has become so second nature that the ramifications escape us most of the time. You just had a great work out, had an awesome night out or fell in love with someone and you want to let the world know, and why not? More often than not, people don’t respond but you feel happy in the knowledge that your friends are sharing the great moments of your life as they happen.So what happens when you start sharing the not so great moments in your life?

Like the fact that you consider your marriage to be over but out of fear (or because we’ve been conditioned to think that online communication is a legitimate replacement for real human contact) you break the news to your partner (and the whole world) through Facebook?

What happened in the case of Edward Richardson is horrifying, and sadly, seems to be part of a growing trend. He is one of three people in the past year to have murdered a lover because of a Facebook status update.

Richardson was recently found guilty of stabbing his estranged wife to death after she stopped responding to his text messages and she changed her Facebook status to single. Richardson tried, but failed, to kill himself after the attack. An innappropriate method of communication lead to a grossly inappropriate response.

NPR recently covered another case where blogger Thordora tweeted “If I smother my 3 year old, who will NOT GO TO F****** SLEEP, is it REALLY a crime?”. NPR’s Linton Weeks goes on to say:

“Followers of Thordora’s blog know that she is bipolar. And that she feels burdened, overwhelmed at times. She is also quite sarcastic in her blog entries and Twitter messages, but as that tweet went out, there was genuine apprehension among her users/readers/followers/friends.”

No shit! I’d be worried too. But one of Thordora’s readers decided it would be prudent to contact Twitter’s admin staff, rather than contacting Thordora directly, and alert them to the tweet they had just published. The saga came to an end with the police knocking on Thordora’s door at 11pm to make sure that her kids were OK.

For me there are two sides to the story here. Firstly Thordora didn’t realise the potential impact of her message on her readers and probably should have considered the wording of it. The other side is the action that the reader took without first seeking clarification from Thordora. It’s a classic breakdown in communication as a direct result of the inability of pure text to convey anything other than a blunt message.

Having many times got the wrong end of the stick from the lack of subtlety and definition in text-based communication and finding myself exasperated and not being properly understood, it didn’t take a massive leap for me to understand how these awful events come about.

Of course, I’m not advocating that we stop communicating through social media apps as they are a great way to share the little joys and triumphs we experience, and nor am I suggesting that Twitter or Facebook are in any way responsible. I would, however, advocate a greater awareness the part of anyone who uses these types of apps of the potential hammer-blow of text-based (as opposed to face-to-face) contact.

Now, if there was a way we could imbue undeniably efficient text with all the subtlety that comes from facial expression, body language and tone of voice? Put your minds to it…

(Source NPR via PSFK, ComputerWeekly via Gizmodo)

Category: Things I Hate, Web

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  1. Rob says:

    I think that the great power of social networks is that they lend a certain transparency to our lives. We now have to think before we act as it is more than likely that someone will be capturing our every move on a camera phone and before you know it everyone knows what you are doing!
    Ultimately I think this will result in a more honest society where white lies are much more difficult to pull off successfully. No longer can you chuck a sicky at work to go to a party or feign illness get out of dinner with someone. With every action of your life documented online there really is no hiding!
    I say bring on social networking. As the saying goes, you’ve got nothing to worry about if you’ve got nothing to hide!

  2. drewpasmith says:

    Hey Rob, thanks for your thought provoking comment.

    You talk of a certain transparency? Depending on your level of devotion to social media it can lead to total transparency without you even knowing it!

    While I don’t argue with your point that this can lead to a more honest society, I firmly believe that private individuals should have a choice over their level of exposure. Because of the pervasiveness of social networking and the desire to be part of the crowd, many people don’t think through the consequences of of their actions when they sign up and post something about their lives. I wanted to remind people to be aware of how what they post could be used for malicious ends.

    What is really galling to me, however, is how people can lose control of their own image because someone else has access to material that the owner doesn’t or doesn’t know exists.

    You sound more than a touch idealistic when you glibly state that “you’ve got nothing to worry about if you’ve got nothing to hide!”. I’m certain that there are parts of your life you’d rather kept away from public criticism.

  3. […] other day I wrote a post about my discomfort with the combination of the pervasiveness of social media and the lack of […]

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