In Defense of Social Media

By Jen Kach

I had to fight for a Facebook page. It was 2008, just after my high school graduation, and the majority of my friends had one.

I wouldn’t say I follow trends blindly, a la “Oh, Pippi Longstocking braids are in? Let me break out the wire hangers and red ribbon ASAP!” But I do get inspiration from what I see around me, from what everyone else is doing. And what everyone else was doing during summer 2008 was Facebook.

My mom, though, remained firm in her conviction that Facebook was not as valuable as I thought, that it would actually be a detriment to my social life. We haggled for the better part of an evening, but all she would concede was that if, two weeks into my freshman year of college, I still “thought I needed” it, she wouldn’t stand in my way. But, she made sure to emphasize, she’d be disappointed. Why use a computer if I could meet people in real life? I argued that one did not exclude the other.

As it turned out, I set up a profile. In that sense, I won our little debate — but I can’t help thinking today that I could have presented a much stronger argument.

The argument in favor of social media sites like Facebook gains strength not only from sheer numbers (a recent New York Times article estimated that by 2013, every person in the world with an Internet connection would be on Facebook), but from the tremendous amount of potential these sites have. Of course, it’s not all cyber rainbows and digital butterflies, but social media sites have value above and beyond the ability to “poke” your friends.

One point cannot be debated: Social media sites are a hit. In a June 2010 report, Edison Research determined that 48% of Americans 12 and over use them — a 14% increase from 2009. This means that, as of press time, more of the nation approves of social media than of the president.

The goal of social media is to bring individuals closer together, whether they know each other well or not.

Three of the most prominent sites are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Each has advantages that make logging on worthwhile.

Facebook, in particular, makes sharing its mission. With status updates, picture uploads, commenting, messaging and more, you can weave together all the bits and pieces of your unique personality and display the results for a network of friends and acquaintances.

“Facebook has turned what was once anonymous — the Internet — into something that gives people an identity,” says Tina Bradford, of Tina Bradford Public Relations in Bethlehem.

With an emphasis on personal expression rivaling a sit-down with Dr. Phil, Facebook is the perfect place for those with something to say. The site, however, is more than just a virtual microphone. For one thing, Facebook can mobilize groups of people on a variety of scales.

Bradford provides one example: “Facebook is great for invites.”

And she’s right. With Facebook Events, you can send out invitations, receive replies and keep track of guest lists all on the same page and can even mass-message guests with updates or thank-yous related to the event. It’s efficient party-planning, yes, but Facebook Events is also good for marketing, research and activism.

A number of the site’s other features are practical as well. Companies, musical artists and television shows use Facebook Fan Pages to connect with the general population and post promotions, sneak peeks and breaking news. In addition, Facebook Groups gather individuals who share a viewpoint, creating solidarity — sometimes to the point of real social change. In his book The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World, David Kirkpatrick, a former technology editor at Fortune, tells the story of Oscar Morales, whose group Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC became the catalyst for worldwide marches in protest of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla organization that had been taking hostages for years. Within the Facebook group, individual men and women finally felt the camaraderie necessary to take a powerful stand.

Facebook isn’t the only social media site that has had a worldwide impact. During the 2009 presidential elections in Iran, the government tried to keep protests out of the public eye, suppressing news and video feeds. Savvy citizens, however, were able to get around the technological barriers and post updates to Twitter, a compilation of 140-characters-or-less musings, news and answers to the ubiquitous question “What’s happening?” Twitter became a vital source of news about the protests, mobilizing information among Iranian citizens as well as supporters throughout the world.

Bradford, whose own Twitter page describes her as a “writer, journalist, public relations professional and social marketing practitioner,” sees the breaking-news function as one of the site’s most useful. A former fashion editor at Glamour magazine, she knows how to spot trends — and, thanks to its design, so does Twitter. On Twitter, you can categorize messages using a “hashtag,” a word or phrase set off by a pound sign (#). On every user’s home page is a list of those categories most often referenced, so you can keep up with what has the rest of the world buzzing.

Hashtags are just one way you can use Twitter to stay in the know. In addition to posting your own updates (known as “tweets”), you can follow other users’ tweets, usually those of people you know or celebrities. When you follow another Twitter user, his or her tweets appear on your homepage (and, conversely, if they follow you, your tweets appear on theirs). Many businesses, including Starbucks and B104, also have Twitter profiles. Companies like these often post special events, coupon codes and promotions — sometimes exclusively for Twitter followers.

The professional site LinkedIn has been gaining popularity as well. Here, you can create a professional profile and present yourself to potential employers. LinkedIn allows you to showcase multiple facets of your personality in a professional context. A profile here is, in essence, a resumé and cover letter combined. You’re not limited to a single page of bulleted accomplishments — you can discuss your experience, education and more in as much detail as you wish. If you’re just entering the workforce, you can still benefit from the site. In addition to getting your name and credentials out there, you can ask questions of experts in your field, rounding out your knowledge and making you a more viable job candidate. LinkedIn even offers a job directory that lists open positions organized into categories such as industry, company and region.

Even if you’re comfortably settled in an occupation, you can use LinkedIn to meet and/or keep in contact with business associates and co-workers. Says Bradford: “I know people who work together now who met on LinkedIn.”

Not exactly surprising for a company whose motto is “Relationships matter.”

Relationships on LinkedIn, though, are much different than on Facebook. The basic function of both sites—networking—is the same, but Facebook interactions tend to be more casual, while those on LinkedIn are solely professional. You can connect with old classmates and acquaintances on both sites, but LinkedIn connections have a more formal relationship than Facebook friends. And if you have a profile on both sites, it’s important to remember that, on average, friend lists don’t translate. Of course, it depends on your personal situation, but in most cases you wouldn’t add your boss as a Facebook friend or connect on LinkedIn with your old college drinking buddies.

Social media sites can do a lot of good, but they aren’t perfect. Sharing is caring on Facebook, but there’s always the risk of information overload. Posts from gaming applications can overpower a news feed, and there’s no limitation on the creation of fan pages: 715,008 people get updates from The New York Times, but over 900,000 connect with “If you tickle me im not responsible for your injuries [sic].” In addition, Facebook can be extremely fickle. Its layout and privacy settings change frequently, sometimes with little to no advance warning. Twitter is often “over capacity,” meaning that too many people are trying to access the site at the same time. When this happens, you’ll see an (admittedly) cute picture of a flock of birds trying to lift a whale, but the delay can be a hindrance. Also, while Twitter doesn’t allow spamming, and has taken steps to prevent it, it can still occur. (Accounts that post the same update multiple times to a single profile are usually spammers. They’re annoying, yes, but they can also be dangerous, spreading around viruses and malware.) On LinkedIn, in order to get in contact with someone you don’t know, you need to be introduced by a mutual connection. This condition cuts down on unwanted interactions and spam but also makes it difficult to grow a network, especially if you’re just entering the professional world.

And, of course, there’s always risk involved in putting any kind of personal information online.

With each website’s flaws, though, come numerous advantages. They connect people all over the world, creating bonds and relationships that can have a positive impact both on- and offline. If two heads are better than one, social media sites are an efficient way to get the right heads together. And the people who use these sites correctly connect not only with each other, but with their worlds, making for a more informed, more involved community.

I suppose, subconsciously, I knew all of this back in the summer of 2008. I knew there had to be more to the social media trend than just blind faith. And as I made friends at school (and added them on Facebook), my mom began to know it as well. She must have even had a small spark of interest, because it wasn’t terribly long afterwards that she created a profile of her own.

The day my dad posted his first status update, I considered my point made.

An English student at Penn State University, Jen Kach vehemently denies any Facebook addictions.

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram