The year is only 6 days old and already social networks have been at the top of the news not just once but 3 times - on the positive si...

Social media a force for good or subversion ?


The year is only 6 days old and already social networks have been at the top of the news not just once but 3 times - on the positive side Facebook and Twitter were used to successfully find Serena Beakhurst, a 14 year who ran away from home, using celebrities such as Rio Ferdinand and Stephen Fry conversely Simone Black announced here intention to kill herself on Facebook on Christmas Day and was goaded by some of her (supposed) 1048 friends - she eventually carried out her desire to fatal consequences. Then only yesterday the police announced that they are to use Facebook advertising to try and find some clues as to murder of Jo Yeates - in a statement they said “The majority of people these days are spending time on Facebook and other social networking sites – it has become part of everyday routine, This advert allows us to point people to special features on our website and contact our incident room.” The force said using the site was also cost-effective.
Head of E-services Scott Fulton said: “There have been over 63,000 views of the news updates on our website, a further 18,000 on the dedicated Jo page and over 70,000 views of the CCTV clips on our YouTube channel.” The case (at the time of writing remains unsolved).
So it certainly looks like the predictions of social networking (and in turn social media) reaching the mainstream in 2011 are spot on - however this does bring with it the murky issue of privacy. I blogged back at the start of 2010 that privacy would be a major issue during the year and indeed it was - from Zuckerberg declaring in Jan 2010 that the "age of privacy was over" to the stubborn approach to sharing settings and although they did publicise the ability to opt out of various initiatives - it was just that - an opt out not an opt in !
In the past I have had a relatively blase attitude towards privacy - I always viewed it as necessary to evolve online experiences - semantic web being a large element of this however an article in The Sunday Times this week woke me up to the more subversive nature of how some organisations are using the internet (and more importantly social media) to track dissidents and mould people's thoughts. The article is an overview written by Evegny Morozov for his book The Net Delusion, in it he claims that many authoritarian Governments are using the internet for keeping their populations under surveillance and in line - something that runs directly counter to the claims that the internet will set us free. He cites the Iranian election of 2009 where the Western media pronounced it a revolution led by Twitter and the fact that the "crowdsourcing" undertaken by the multitude of smartphones helped the Government pinpoint and arrest all those involved. It didn't stop there, according to Morozov, they also used Facebook to find those supporters of the Green party living abroad and threatened them with harm to their relatives in Iran plus manipulated Twitter messages to increase support for Ahmadinejad. Other references included how easy it is to predict the sexual orientation of someone on Facebook by their friends (interesting in countries where it is illegal) and the 50 cent army in China which is apparently 280k strong and paid to blog and steer ideological discussion in the "correct direction". The West is not immune to this - GCHQ and the Hone Office have used the targeting of terrorists as an excuse to read everyone's emails (and maybe social network status too) and the US aggressive reaction to WikiLeaks speaks volumes.
So what of 2011 ? I think privacy will become one of the hottest topics of the year - indeed the year start with Data Privacy Day at the end of January ! - it could be the tipping point for many to leave the mainstream social networking sites and start smaller more niche groups (Ning'esque) - whatever the outcome is privacy is going to become a buzzword as surely as Facebook and Twitter did in 2010.

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