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July 02, 2018 Monday 04:26:44 PM IST

THE MIDDLE PATH

Expert Counsel

VK was one of my best friends during my childhood days. Though senior to me by a couple of years we shared the same madness about cricket. We used to play together in the neighbourhood and subsequently graduated to playing for the same club. But, more importantly, we used to spend hours discussing the game and analysing threadbare the developments in various matches played around the world and the performance of individual players.


However, we fell out of touch with each other after I moved to Kozhikode, then Calicut, in 1982 to join for MBBS. Sometime later, my mother told me that VK had moved to the United Statesand had called onher before leaving, requesting her to pass on this message to me.



About 30 years later, during a dinner, I recounted the story of my friendship with VK to my daughter and told her ruefully that I did not think I would ever meet him again. She became curious and started asking me questions about him. I observed that she was simultaneously playing with the smartphone, a permanent accessory in her hands. About half an hour later, even before dinner wasover, she asked me with a smile to check the ‘messenger’ application in my Facebook account.


When I opened the application, I found a message from VK, greeting me and thanking my daughter for sending him a message through Facebook. I learnt that during the time she was probing me about VK, she was actually trying to match those details with a profile that matched VK’s and had sent him a message, giving my coordinates. And VK, who had by then grown into a software wizard, sent me a message immediately on seeing this.



I am certain that every person who uses social media have had similar stories to tell.For, such is the power and potential of this form of communication. Though Wikipedia traces its origin to the 1970s, one can say confidently that social media, asa tool of mass communication, is a 21st-century phenomenon. It influences not only individuals but also companies, corporations, and even governments and is presently the single biggestfactor that determines the thought processes and behavioural of humanitythe world over. It is estimated that prominent social media websites, put together, have more than 100 million registered users!


THE RAMIFIED NETWORK

Social media is defined as a series of computer mediated technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, and other forms of expressions through virtual communities and networks. They rely on user-generated content such as posts, comments, and digital photos. Users create specific profiles for the websites that are maintained by social media organisations who, in turn, promote social networking of like-minded individuals by linking profiles of various users having similar interests. The most popular social media websites are Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, Baidu, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Google+.



Social media websites can be accessed through any device that can be connected to the internet. Assmartphones constitute the smallest and easiest devices for accessing internet, they are used by the most number of peoplewho use social media, with tablets coming in ata distant second. Since it is the younger generation, who have taken to smart phones more proficiently than other age groups, it is not surprising that they constitute the majority of social media users as well.


Companies and corporations have realised the business potential of social media and use it effectively for improving visibility, market research, and implementation of programmes intended to deepencustomer loyalty and promote social responsibility.



When used with discretion, social media is a powerful tool in the hands of the individual customer. It provides uswith a platform to express our thoughts, opinions and ideas, gain access to information, display our talents, give feedback, and even air ourconcerns and grievances.


The biggest advantages of social media are its immediacy and reach. Thus, an individual can inform the public about a delicious meal at a restaurant or share his angst over the poor service of an airline within minutes after the experience.



The classic example of the power of social media is the case of Dave Carroll, the musician whose guitars were broken by an airline due to poor handling. When he found that his guitarsweredamaged due to inept handling by ground staff, Carroll wrote to the airline seeking damages but was rebuffed.


Annoyed by the indifferent attitude of the airline employee, Caroll created a music video about the incident and posted it on YouTube. It became an instant hit with over 1,50,000 views in 24 hours, with the numbers swellingto 5 million in two months and 15 million in a year. The airline shares tumbled almost instantly on account of bad publicity even asthe president of the company was forced to issue a public apology to Caroll while also promising to change the company’s customer policy.



CHANGE AGENT

The other beneficial effects of social media include its use for advertising and establishment of networks of like-minded individuals. It can be used for spreading news, both good and bad, at lightning speed. The revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for almost three decades, was aided by spread of information through social media. At one point the dictator had ordered shutting down of social media websites in his attempts to cling on to power.



Communist Party of China shows healthy respect for the power of social media by keepingit under constant scrutiny and blocking use of words and phrases that they feel are inimical to the interests of the regime and the state.


Of late, companies and educational institutions have started the practice of analysing social media profiles of job applicants and prospective students to see whether their thoughts and attitudes would be contradictory to that of the organisation.



Recently, the High Court of a state ordered that a WhatsApp group be formed to ensurebetter coordination amongvarious government departments in order to tackle water shortage in a city.


THE FLIP SIDE

It goes without saying that social media also possesses many negative attributes as well. The first and foremost pertains to the reliability of information that is posted on various platforms as thereisn’t any mechanism to check or ensure its credibility or accuracy. There are also issues relating toinvasion of privacy and one has to be careful about revealing confidential and personal information in the public domain through social media.



Many people, particularly youngsters, who posted personal data on social media have come to grief, as such information was accessed and misused by criminal elements. Cyber bullying, which includes aberrant behaviour such as stalking, trolling, impersonation, and denigration, is a harmful consequence and has become a serious cause forconcern the world over.


Psychologists have found that excessive use of social media leads to mental depression on account of loneliness and reduction in real-life socialising, with consequent withdrawal from the world around. Sleep deprivation and excessive weight gain, leading to obesity, are other adverse effects that can result from social-media addiction.



It is also understood that easy access to websites showing pornographic material has resulted in increase in deviant sexual behaviour as well as crimes involving sex. Though most of social media websites try to block out access to such sites, it has not been universally successful.


In summary, it must be said that social media is a product of the times we inhabit in that it fulfils the need of the human race for quick and effective communication and,indeed, the liberty to express thoughts and ideas. However, the dictum that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom would apply in the case of this medium as well.



Ultimately, it is for the users to maximise the potential of social media by striking the right balance between its advantages and pitfalls.


Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is the CEO of NORKA ROOTS, India
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