It is easy to throw out examples of social media, like a YouTube video or a wall post on Facebook. But, it can be a little trickier to explain why these streams are considered “social” media. One simple definition of social media is media meant to be shared. That does not quite cut it. When a neighborhood shares a lawnmower, it is not referred to as the “social lawnmower.” Instead, we refer to it as the “community lawnmower.” The same goes for movies we borrow from friends. Shared objects are a part of the communal experience, but they are not social in and of themselves.
Instead, being social is something that happens within and even across communities. When someone is “being social,” they are talking to people, laughing, and enjoying someone’s company. The next day, someone who overheard this social butterfly might say to a friend, “Did you hear what Annie said?” This is what social media is really about. Social media aims to interject itself, with hopes of being shared, into the ongoing conversation of mankind that has continued since Adam first met Eve. I would say social media contributes to the conversation, but contribution often has an inherently positive meaning to people. Just as people speaking at a party, social media can be used to build up or tear down.
The problem with a conversation, for some of us, is that there is permanence in the air. Something that has been said cannot be unsaid. This is the potential pitfall of social media. Our thoughts are carried through video, text, and audio, and these technologies take our space in the ongoing conversation. We are still the messengers, just through different means. However, it is easy to forget that the same rules of conversation still apply. In fact, we are held to higher standards because social media often results in a larger and more diverse audience.
For a class project, I created an exercise video demonstrating a routine that could be completed in an office cubicle. To submit my work, I posted the video on YouTube. This morning, I was surprised to find the video had been shown in a voluntary staff meeting to potentially hundreds (I did not attend, so I honestly have no clue how many were there) of my co-workers. People returned from the meeting saying things like “Great job on the video.” I had no clue what they were talking about until they mentioned specifics of the routine.
In general, the hopes of someone who generates social media is to get noticed and shared. So, without trying, my work captured a substantial audience. Instead of being excited, I had an uneasy feeling of “that wasn’t meant for you.” This is probably a common knee-jerk reaction. I reminded myself that I had chosen to participate in an open conversation. The social media did exactly what it was meant to do. Now, I had no problem with my coworkers seeing the video. It was fun to make and I think it could be a helpful resource. But, it served as a reminder of social media’s nature.
This is exactly why we warn children (and adults!) that they need to be careful about what they post on the Internet. If you show up at an office party scantily clad, word will travel. If you defame someone in public, they and everyone else will know about it. Social media is a lot like showing up to the conversation with a megaphone.
So, that is the two-edged sword of social media. It can elevate our strengths at the same time that it reminds everyone of our weaknesses. To borrow a concept from Jesus, who said “Judge not, lest ye be judged”: “Tweet not, lest ye be re-Tweeted.”