The social media Pandora's Box

Forrest Gump's mama was on to something when she said that "Life is like a box of chocolates." Had there been social media at the time she might have said: "Life is like a box of snakes: some will eat out of your hand and the rest will bite it." That applies to the giants of the social media industry: Facebook and Google. As with most things in life there is a price to paid for “free” stuff. When it comes to the promise of connectivity, the price can be high and include a loss of privacy and being digitally shadowed wherever you go.

Millions of Facebook users have found out the hard way that the company that offered them a portal to the entire world couldn't (or wouldn't) protect their personal data from being “harvested” and archived by companies determined to sell them products and services and who had no qualms above tapping into their data to do it. It seems that for Facebook users caveat emptor was nothing more than an antiquated Latin warning. It wasn't even a remote consideration for many who signed up for young Mr. Zuckerberg's much vaunted service.

Is Facebook totally to blame? Not really, but it does point a finger at our fellow Americans. What were they thinking when the offer of worldwide connectivity was laid at their feet? Were they so mesmerized at the thought of having their lives on display 24/7 that they happily agreed to Facebook's fine print? Was having the equivalent of their own personal website handed to them on a digital platter so appealing that they looked the other way? Are we so demanding of attention that millions of us needed our own online shop window into our private lives where every single thing we do, say or that happens to us is broadcast to our Facebook friends, no matter its importance?

I would suggest that Facebook has opened the Pandora's Box of the human condition and tapped into the conjoined twin of the most basic of human desires...the need for relevance and remembrance. Very few among us strive for insignificance or wish to be forgotten. Truth be told, most of us spend our lives in the 'me' zone, frantically accumulating things and experiences that we hope will increase our own personal value and our importance to our families and friends. In the past, the reporting of good deeds would be left up to the media. Things have changed, dramatically, and so has the media. No longer do reporters rush to polish up the community's image or support charitable works. They have become committed cynics and adversaries to the common good. They have also turned into a bunch of largely self-serving and self-important egotists where the only human interest story deemed fit for reporting is the one that supports their own ideology. The more exposure reporters can get for their stories, the more famous they become and the more power or influence they can wield. That has been in the works for many years and didn't start with the birth of social media but it did accelerate at a faster pace because of it.

There is an upside to social media. It has opened an important door to the free exchange of thought. Take Facebook's cousin, Twitter. This enormous chat room has given you and me the keys to the free speech kingdom. There are some very powerful censorship requirements that go along with that opportunity, however. This new digital public square is surveilled in real time by people who believe that they alone know what is acceptable speech and what isn't, and they are ready to pull your plug and take down your words and account if you cross the line into an alternative ideological space.

That's social media's dark side and the one thing that can potentially destroy it. Technology is like a shark; it must constantly keep moving and disrupting the status quo with new products and new platforms in order to stay relevant and profitable. Social media is one of those sharks, but its creators must remember one important thing: those who satisfy a need can also become a victim from it. No company can rest on yesterday's successes nor believe that by simply connecting more people their lives will magically improve. The final chapter hasn't been written on social media, but it is one that should occupy more of our time.

Stephan Helgesen is a retired career U.S. diplomat. He is now a political analyst, strategist and author of nine books and over 850 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He can be reached at stephan@stephanhelgesen.com

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