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To harness the power of social media, we need to be far more responsible than we currently are

I open the newspaper and read that a reputed research institute has found that getting of Facebook makes people happier. In another piece, one that has inspired me this morning, I read that many 20-something in Europe are organizing themselves via social media, chiefly Twitter and Facebook, to volunteer at refugee camps and help stations along the Balkan refugee route. Their volunteerism is filling a crucial gap where governments and international organizations are failing humanity through various errors of omission or commission.

This right here is the paradox of the modern digitally connected world, a world that brings everything to our doorstep and yet drives us further into self-obsession and paranoia. A world that has the potential for positive transformation but that also can peddle dangerous misinformation that can destroy the social fabric we live in. Which brings me to something I have been deeply concerned about lately. As users of social media, how responsible are we about what we ‘like’ and ‘share’, how accountable are we for our ‘comments’ and ‘replies’, our ‘retweets’ and ‘mentions’? Are we conscious that our actions on social media influence many others? Are we responsible enough?

IMG_5014Much of the presumably passive behaviour on social media send out the wrong signals to those who are aggressively peddling a specific agenda. For instance, someone I know shared some inflammatory (read communal, racist) content on Whatsapp recently because someone close to her had shared it. When I brought it up, she got very defensive about it. She said she wasn’t going to risk offending her friend by taking a stand and refusing to share something she had expressly been requested to. Does a friend’s refusal to share content posted by you constitute a breach of friendship? How do we construe etiquette on social media, which typically reduces everything to binaries (like or not, retweet or not), unless you are prepared for a longer, more time-consuming, engaged interaction over comments and responses?

Another example of passive online behaviour is the endless sharing and forwarding of hoax messages. From the erstwhile menace of email chain letters that spread in a few days, we’re now in the age of social media shares that can go round the world in a matter of minutes! Hoaxes prey on our fears and most of us respond with a ‘share’ out of genuine concern for those around us. However, sharing a hoax also means adding substantially to the climate of paranoia and alarm around us. I find this totally unnecessary and have started cross-checking the verity of all alarmist messages before deciding to share. Perhaps if we were to be pro-active about warning our friends of the ‘hoax-ness’ of certain messages, we might be doing each other a huge favour!

Coming back to the passiveness of non-engagement. When we refrain from expressing dissent or engaging in an argument, do we fail to stand up for what we believe in? Can we find ways to debate on social media without being abusive, without becoming the trolls we constantly complain about? Is the short format available to us via FB/Twitter/LinkedIn inherently unsuitable to meaningful conversation and more suited to simplistic reductions?

To put it plainly, I’m concerned at the way the educated urban elite is peddling information via social media without really engaging with it. In our own way, by practicing a kind of reductionism we are exacerbating the problem of lower tolerance. We are aiding the creation of a society where nuance and civilised debate is fast becoming an impossibility. We do need to take a step back and think about this. For our actions, not just physical but also virtual, are continually shaping the world in which we live, a world we share with a new generation of impressionable young people who deserve a more tolerant, more encouraging and more diverse universe.

I now live a tangible part of my life on social networks! How did this happen? Sep 5, 2012

I started the journey into social networking with the mandatory Orkut account ages ago, and then Facebook. These were purely a way to get back in touch with long lost friends. And to take online the conversations with the current friends circle that we cannot have face to face as our lives are too busy! Sharing photos, thoughts and experiences were a natural extension.

But things began to change when I started blogging. To promote by blog, I tentatively got myself a twitter handle. I remember asking Nupur how the hell this thing worked! I was rather at sea. And inside me somewhere, I had this notion that spending hours on social media was a retarded thing to do! Well, things have changed drastically in just a few months. I am very much that excited moron today! And proud to be one.

How did this happen, and why? For a person like me, who thinks a zillion thoughts a day, whose interests lie in many different directions and who yearns to share, listen, debate and interact, social media is nothing short of a blessing. By offsetting my blog with just two sites- Facebook and Twitter, I can achieve a mix of interactions that keep me invigorated, excited, curious about life and the world around me.

The real serious stuff that I feel strongly about goes on my blog. That is a form of self expression. The communication with my friends tends to happen directly or via FB. The fun stuff, posting pics of my kids, outings or travel, the conversations about daily events- all that good stuff is what FB is about for me. Yes, I do follow pages of social causes I identify with or organizations I find relevant, but that is a secondary activity and does not occupy much mindspace.

Twitter is where I assume my professional, intellectual (ha!) persona. It started with a deliberate positioning and I decided to follow media, organizations and individuals related to urbanism, planning and design. But over a period of time, it has changed to include a whole bunch of what I term ‘thinking, liberal’ people as well. I enjoy reading a wide range of opinions on diverse issues. I love the opportunity Twitter provides to get into a meaningful conversation or stay out of something you don’t agree with it. Or voice disagreement and dissent if that is required.

Occasionally, the boundaries between FB and Twitter do melt. Kids pics appear on Twitter via Instagram (another wonderful app). And links that I consider good for wider reading do get shared on FB, like the editorial by Ranjit Sabikhi I shared today morning.

On the whole, social networking helps me stay updated and connected, especially important for a flexi-worker like me. I work for a small organization and there are limited opportunities for physical networking as my children are young and I have chosen to spend time at home to be with them. With four standard windows open on the browser- Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and WordPress, I feel empowered and engaged. Loneliness and boredom keep away and that’s pretty much what constitutes happiness, for the most part.

Yes, I do find myself wondering if living a life via social networking will impact my real world relationships adversely. Up until now, the real and virtual worlds are complementing each other beautifully. But I am aware that there is a need for caution. When you get used to sharing too much, some private, intimate and vital aspects get short shrift, because they are unsharable. So yes, I do know I need to carve out a lion’s share of space in my mind for the real world experiences that must, ultimately, feed my world on the social networks!

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