When social media meets international politics, fireworks doubtless ensue. Although it may be uncomfortable for some to watch, it’s yet another sign that these tools are fast becoming a mainstream means of interaction and communication — and another sign that we need to get serious about how we use them.
It wasn’t always this way. In the beginning, Facebook was a simple Web-based service that allowed Harvard students to get to know each other a little better. Since escaping from the halls of its Ivy League birthplace, Facebook has become infinitely more than that. With 300 million users across the globe — and counting — it’s a country in and of itself, a virtual ecosystem where the conflicts of the greater world play out in mostly blue, black and white hues and in dozens of languages.
The Virtual World Meets the Real One
And how it plays out is — like the real world its users occupy when they’re not updating their status or uploading pictures from their smart phones — not always pretty. Ongoing skirmishes over whether the Golan Heights are part of Israel or Syria, who owns the Kashmir region and whether or not Tibet’s capital Lhasa is considered part of China continue to illustrate social media’s ability to mirror broader society.
This isn’t necessarily a negative trend. The fact that we can even have this level of interaction on what was once little more than a simple online bulletin board is a sign of social media’s growing pervasiveness and influence. It’s also proof positive that as 2009 segues into 2010, social media has become significantly more fundamental to our lives than many of us may have previously thought.
For example, in the wake of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, debate has flashed back and forth over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway territories at the center of the conflict. Despite Russia’s claims that Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, is Russian, according to Facebook, it’s in Georgia. Supporters on both sides have been lining up on their respective fan pages, launching verbal bombs at each other in a virtual continuation of the long-since-quelled military conflict.
Times Have Changed
In an earlier age, such interaction might have played out in front of embassies or consulates. It might have involved far fewer participants, and it would have received far less total attention — from the media as well as regular folks — as it would today. The level of discussion would consequently be lower, which would minimize the potential for true dialogue to take place. While much of the Georgia-Russia online dogfight remains barely publishable and often juvenile, the fact that venues have emerged for some sort of exchange opens up an admittedly small opportunity for more meaningful dialogue.
Somewhere in the tens of thousands of single-minded supporters, there’s a small minority of people who might be open to constructive exchanges with their supposed enemies. It’s a fascinating twist that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, still largely seen by most users as relatively trivial channels for the minutiae of everyday life, can be used for such potentially world-changing discussions.
Impossible to Predict
It’s an evolution the founders of these services likely never envisioned. I doubt Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appreciated how influential some seemingly small architecture decisions — how to populate a list of countries, how to define a territory, whether to allow users to register under “occupied territories,” among others — would have such profound real-world implications for so many users. As he sat in his dorm room barely six years ago, he couldn’t have appreciated how a simple online communications tool would evolve into a global force for change.
Predicted or not, the tools have become the global village equivalent of the town square. And arguments that used to take place on benches in the shadows of cafes and church steeples now fly across transoceanic cables and satellite links. The implications for users — both consumer and business — who choose to use social media are clear:
- The context within which personal and business communication takes place has changed radically and permanently.
- Sensitivities surrounding something as simple as your choice of hometown can ignite debates that may harm you or your business.
- The number of stakeholders touched by social media continues to increase at an accelerating rate — which only exacerbates communication-related sensitivity.
Against this backdrop, individuals and businesses can no longer afford to dive into social media without some sort of plan that is both strategic and tactical. Companies will increasingly dictate what employees can and cannot say when they use these services, and acceptable use policies that deal specifically with these tools will become the norm rather than the exception.
Whether such limitations are right, moral or legal is ultimately for individuals and the courts to decide — and will likely never be decided to anyone’s satisfaction. But greater discipline surrounding social-media-based messaging will happen regardless, as these fast-evolving platforms become more precise mirrors of broader society.
Carmi Levy is a technology journalist and analyst with experience launching help desks and managing projects for major financial services institutions. He offers consulting advice on enterprise infrastructure, mobility and emerging social media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.