Good, bad or just bizarre: some thoughts on social media

1217linkedinSocial media can be a force for good – think the #metoo campaign by women who have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry and how that has exposed decades of predatory behaviour by actors, directors, writers and entertainers.

Think too of someone like Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian journalist trapped on Manus Island who has been able to tell the real story of what has gone on in that Australian-made hell hole using Twitter and his smart phone.

Social media can also make us laugh, inform us, warn us and of course foster connections with people from all around the world.

But think also of its insidousness, how false information can be spread through Twitter and Facebook (the Russian influence on the 2016 US presidential election campaign is but one recent example) and other platforms, how people can be bullied, trolled and harassed. Social shaming can ruin lives, (read Jon Ronson’s excellent book, ‘So you have been publicly shamed’) and lead to suicide or violence towards others. A Tweet or Facebook post can be deleted but everything lives on in the archives of the internet – just ask Justine Sacco.

And think of all that Donald Trump tweeting! That surely can’t be a good thing for the progress of mankind.

 

Social media can also be…well just bizarre.

Take my birthday for example. I turned 44 just over a week ago. I didn’t make a fuss about it as that is my preference and expected only a small, but intimate celebration with my wife and kids (accompanied by pizza, beer and cake!) and a few phone calls from family and close friends. I didn’t tell people at work and nobody said anything. I was perfectly happy with that arrangement

But of course, we enter our birth dates into our social media profiles and so the almost 2000 people I am connected with on business social media platform LinkedIn (I used it a lot) got an alert to say it was my birthday.

And the greetings came flooding in from people I have never met or interacted with except to accept their connection request (I have trouble saying no), and from all corners of the globe.

Mostly it was just a generic “Happy Birthday” greeting, occasionally it was personalised with “Have a great day!” but it made me wonder why these people, who basically did not know me, felt they needed to wish me a happy birthday. I certainly don’t wish strangers on happy birthday, even when they pop up on my LinkedIn page.

But it got even more bizarre, because I felt this irrational obligation to thank every single person who had wished me a Happy Birthday, regardless of who they were (of course among the greetings were people I do know and interact with), where they lived or what they did.

And so I spent a good part of my day constantly replying to Happy Birthday messages on LinkedIn as they came in thanking Surya in Delhi, India, Siergiej in London, Orit on the NSW Far North Coast and Rui in Southport, Queensland. By the end of the day I’d received 40 or more birthday greetings. I’d never been more “popular”.

But why were these people sending me birthday greetings? Do you they send them to everyone they are connected with on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook? Or was I considered special in some way?

(Ironically, some friends and family who I expected to hear from never contacted me, not even through social media.)

It makes me wonder just how much of our lives we spend on social media thumbing through our Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, checking up on people on Facebook or Instagram? Surely it can now be measured – like sleep – in years lost from our lives.

But while sleep is necessary to function properly – we would literally go crazy and die if we did not sleep for a long period of time, I doubt whether endlessly checking our myriad social media accounts really adds much to the human experience, one that is becoming increasingly disconnected from the real world.

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Death by @Twitter: Do my tweets matter that much?

A strange thing happened to me on Twitter a little while ago.

It was at the time that the Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was being sent to jail on outrageous, fabricated charges in Egypt and I tweeted something like:

I think the Abbott govt would have made more of an effort to help Peter Greste if he worked for News Corp.

The tweet was in bad taste, but I had blundered even further by being completely unaware that the verdict had just been handed out in a Cairo kangaroo court.

It stayed up a couple of hours while I was out at the movies.

When I returned, my Twitter notification box was lit up: half a dozen people had seen my remark and hurled abuse at me – via tweets calling me an insensitive so and so.

Others had retweeted their condemnation of my tweet. The wheels – I thought – were in motion.

For a moment, I was in a blind panic. Would I suffer the fate of Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted about going  Africa and getting AIDS and become a social media sensation (for all the wrong reasons) and get sacked?

Justine SaccoWould #whereisLarry? start trending?

In a cold sweat, I frantically deleted the tweet and tweeted my apologies to the most incensed in the Twitter-sphere (Complete strangers actually).

We all made up – and life went on.

Looking back on it now, I can’t decide if I completely over-reacted or on the other hand – had defused a ticking time bomb.

I think perhaps the former: My tweet was not nearly provocative enough and it was neither racist, sexist or xenophobic, the kind of tweets that really land you in to trouble.

In fact, now I kind of wish I’d left it up – just to see what might have happened.

Andy Warhol famously predicted in 1968 that in the future, everyone would get their 15 minutes of fame. He probably never thought that so many people would achieve it via social media or reality TV?

Had I missed out on mine?

The strange, dangerous, addictive world of @Twitter

twitterA colleague at work tells me I’m the worst tweeter in the world.

I laugh and shrug, but agree he could be right  (some of the time).

Mostly, it’s to do with my inane comments on sport, particularly Australian Football, which I admit I know very little about.

Still that doesn’t stop me winding up my 1200 or so followers, some of whom are friends who support opposing teams to the high-flying Sydney Swans, the team I barrack for.

What can  I say, I like to wind people up by saying this coach couldn’t teach a primary school woodwork class or that full forward couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo – let alone guide the Sherrin through the middle posts.

My problem is that I occasionally tweet my private thought and let’s be honest everyone has some pretty dark or silly ideas running through their brains at one time or another (before Twitter came along in 2008 the worst you could do is send a text message while drunk or angry) .

Some tweets are so explosively bad, they have the potential to be disastrous.

This was famously illustrated last year when PR executive Justine Sacco tweeted to just 400 followers before boarding a long-haul flight from the US to South Africa:

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Twelve or so hours later, her racist remarks had been retweeted thousands of times – by people who had tens of thousands of followers creating a huge multiplier effect – and the Twitter-sphere was up in arms.

A hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended around the world and Ms Sacco found herself with 8000 unwanted “followers”.

Ms Sacco lost her job, her reputation was in tatters and she promptly vanished from Twitter and social media to lick her wounds (though amazingly someone has hired her again!)

Of course other more famous people have gotten into trouble for tweeting including fiery cricketer Dave Warner, who tweeted an expletive-ladden attack on cricket writers and was promptly fined by Cricket Australia and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher who tweeted to his 8 million followers his support for American college football coach Joe Paterno after he was sacked for not doing enough to prevent the abuse of children by his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

A bad tweet can end a career, ruin a reputation and cost a lot of money in legal fees – comedian Roseanne Barr was sued by the parents of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin – after she tweeted their home address. The Zimmermans claimed Ms Barr incited a lynch mob. She later deleted the tweet but the damage was already done.

Undeniably, Twitter has incredible power.

While Facebook’s influence is arguably waning, Twitter is getting bigger and bigger (pop star Katy Perry has 54 million followers) and it has that incredible multiplier effect through retweets. Give a tweet time (as in the case of Justine Sacco) and the results can be tsunami-like.

Twitter’s power is its immediacy, punchiness (just 140 characters forcing people to condense their thoughts into bite size chunks) and ability to reach so many people.

Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn and others, where there is some level of privacy (messages can be restricted to friends and networks), Twitter is a free-for-all where everything is public.

It’s an addictive place where you can read the private thoughts of some of the world’s most powerful people  like right-wing media baron Rupert Murdoch  – @rupertmurdoch  – who actually writes his own rambling tweets.

It’s where you can interact with your favourite celebrities (who doesn’t like to brag about getting a reply from a favourite actor or a retweet or mention) and get involved in discussions on politics, sport, religion and every topic in between.

There’s a strange kind of pleasure when people from far-flung places respond to your tweets. For example, this exchange after I posted my thoughts on the book Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which I had just read. I got a reply from an actor appearing in the play of the novel in the UK.

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Twitter is a great place for sharing stories, thoughts, inspiration, recipes, photographs, anecdotes, jokes and grievances (nothing better than winding up a big corporation who can’t help themselves but responding to every criticism).

Twitter is where many of the biggest news stories are broken (I remember a colleague at work shouting out: “Someone has just tweeted that Oscar Pistorious has shot his girlfriend” before it became a huge worldwide story).

But you have to be careful what you write even if you are a humble journo hack like me.

A point I have to keep reminding myself every time I think I’ve thought up something witty to say and have my finger hovering over the “Tweet” button.

“Just remember Justine Sacco,” I tell myself.

Follow me @larryschles