Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Two Sides of Social Media

In the early days, people get the latest news from the radio, TV and newspapers. These were also the source of public opinion. The arrival of the Internet did not change that, i.e. until social media came and changed the rules.
In the mid 90s, the only way for individuals to publish their thoughts online was to get a web space from an ISP, learn HTML codes, and create web pages by using text editors. Apps soon became available to create web pages with minimal coding, and websites like Geocities offered free web spaces. Anyone can then put up their web pages, but updating still means creating individual pages and uploading them to the web server. However, the biggest challenge is audience. How do they keep the readers interested? How do they ensure that their articles reflect the readers’ interests so that they will make the effort to visit the website on a regular basis?
Meanwhile, instant messaging is becoming popular and is taking over telnet chat and IRC. However, there is one instant messaging feature that will soon change the world – status updates! Chatters were using status messages to share feelings, opinions and links to everyone in their list.
Then Web 2.0 was born. People are no longer passively reading websites. They are now contributing content by sharing updates within their network. Social networking became popular because users are active participants. Someone who registered on Facebook does not see content created by Facebook, but views updates from other registered users. These posts include external content like videos from YouTube, articles from online newspapers, and even posts from standard web pages. Unlike passive websites, however, users can post their comments to other users' posts! Additionally, sharing posts multiplies the effect, similar to a multilevel network.
There are advancements too in the blog world. Content Management Systems (CMS) became popular. People no longer have to spend time creating individual web pages. All they have to do is select a template and customize the look of their website at least once. Creating new posts have become as simple as typing on a word processor. Suddenly, people with no technical background can publish their own journals on the web.
Trusted connections
Social networking works based on trust. People add friends presumably because they know those people. They share articles because they trust the people who posted them. They scan the article and share, often without validating, and move on to the next status update. That is why social media is a powerful force. Even those who do not fully understand the issue helps in sharing them. Unfortunately, the spin-doctors are aware of this too.
The dark side
Not all news articles are factually true, and it is not easy to detect if it spreads through social networking. Spin-doctors appear to be using social media to sway public opinion in their favour and they do these lately via satirical websites.
I have nothing against satirical websites. They are a good source of humour. They have warnings on their website explaining that the articles are not true. Anyone familiar with the site or reads the article from the website knows that.
Spin-doctors are aware of that, hence, instead of just posting the link to an article, they copy the content and post it on social networking sites, without any notice that the news article is a joke. They can get away with the lies because it is supposedly from a satirical website. Unfortunately, many readers are not aware of that.


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