Saturday, 20 March 2010

Social media brings out the best of us... and the worst

Like it or not, the world of social media is here to stay. Even if you don’t own a PC (or other Internet connected device) at home, the chances are you’ll still come across it at work or amongst your friends and family. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Wikipedia, Gmail, Spotify, Skype, Flickr ... the list seems endless.

So is this a good thing, or bad? Like all other tools (and that’s what social media is), it depends on how it’s used. And because there are good people and bad people, there are good uses and bad uses. It would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss it, limit it, or ban it because of the bad. Firstly that would just drive the badness underground, and secondly it would also deprive us of the good. My view is that we should celebrate the good and be aware of the bad; the former in order to encourage more, the latter in order to arm people against the bad.

So here are just a few of my “Good, Bad and Ugly” nominations. Maybe you could add more of your own. There are three of each, but the numbering is in no particular order. In forthcoming posts I’ll highlight some more of my favourites.

The good

1. CrisisCommons

The Haiti earthquake of January 2010, the Chile earthquake of February 2010 – and no doubt other disasters to come. How can we help? Of course we can give money to the aid organisations – and some of us are actually aid workers (to whim, a huge thank you). Well CrisisCommons, which started out in 2009, uses social media mash up tools to unite the skills of Web 2.0 wizards to help the work of aid providers on the ground. Examples of the social media tools they have created include people finders and a GPS map of Haiti to help locate disaster victims. So if you have Web 2.0 skills and you want to help, head over to CrisisCommons and join up.


2. Shazam

Shazam is about entertainment. Ever been listening to a tune and you can’t bring the title to mind? Never mind, just point your mobile phone at the source and “Shazam” it – 99 times of 100 it’ll tell you that tune! It’s available on Android, Iphone, Blackberry, Symbian and Windows Mobile.


3. BBC News RSS feeds

RSS feeds are one of the older Web 2.0 technologies, and somewhat of an unsung hero in my view. Most sites will offer an RSS feed of some form or other nowadays – just head for that quirky looking orange and white icon! Combine this with BBC’s reputation for trustworthiness and reliability in news broadcasting and you have a brilliant marriage. Currently (March 2010) BBC has 17 text news feeds and 8 video feeds.

The bad (and how to avoid)


1. Hoaxes

“Johnny Depp is dead” (actually, no he is not), but it was widely reported during January 2010 on Twitter that he was. It isn’t the first time this happened (go back to 2004 for the original hoax), but the Twitter-verse tidal wave of Johnny Depp deceased stories caused alarm amongst his fan, and no doubt glee among the evil perpetrators of the hoax. Hoaxsters will use whatever channel and medium they can to do their stuff, and social media (and email) are powerful weapons in their arsenal. If you have email you’ll no doubt have received those “Click here or your bank account will be shut down” messages, even from banks you don’t have an account with. Hopefully most of us are now aware of this sort of thing, but some of the hoaxes are very professionally done and genuine-looking. My advice is, always check up if you’re unsure: don’t take anything said on Twitter and the like for granted. Use this link to get more information about Internet hoaxes and links to sites that help you identify them.


2. FaceBully

It’s no surprise that social networking sites like Facebook and Bebo are tremendously popular with young people (and you can get to Facebook, etc. On your phone as well as on a computer). Social networking relies on people joining groups and forming communities. That’s its power. You can buddy up with people with like interests even though they don’t live anywhere near you. You can link up with your friends and share photos, updates, etc. And young people tend to be more trusting and less careful than older people. They’ll gladly share their age and school with strangers, or sign up to the latest on-line craze (on Facebook there’s everything from virtual farms to horoscopes, from quizzes to causes). Unfortunately social networks can also be used for malicious purposes too. People are all too aware of paedophiles and stalking, but perhaps less well known is the cyber-bullying that goes on, anything from bad-mouthing friends to threatening messages. Here’s where to go to find out how to recognise and combat it.

3.  Not the 9 o’clock News

No, it’s not the BBC comedy of the early 1980s, it’s the fact that the Internet is full of, well “non-facts”, and in social medai terms wiki sites (like Wikipedia) are potential honey-pots for non-truth. How do you tell if something you read on an Internet site is true or not? If you’re a school kid or a university student researching a topic, how do you know that what you find is correct? Is everything on Wikipedia correct? In short, how do you validate for authenticity, reliability and truth? Even respected newspapers and broadcasters sometimes report things without following them up fully enough. Unfortunately the ease with which just anybody can now publish to a world wide stage (take this blog for instance!) means that the mechanisms for validation that are normally (though not always) built into printed media are not nearly as prevalent on the Web. But they’re not absent, and those sites which do validate their material will tell you so: for example by referencing and linking to source material. And you can follow-up those links to check – don’t just believe them because they’re there. Here’s one resource that you might find useful in that respect. Linked to this is the use of online material as if it’s your own work (plagiarism) – here’s a tool to help in that respect too.

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