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Social Media…Blessing or Scourge?

By Ed Maier, Former Andersen Partner

If you ever have had the opportunity to write regularly – for a newspaper, newsletter or a blog – or as an author, screenwriter or Saturday Night Live comedy writer – you may have occasionally experienced what is described as writer’s block. In anticipation of this quarterly newsletter which will come out right after the 4th of July, I was suffering from a similar affliction. Then I had breakfast with one of our alumni. During our conversation, we talked about the plethora of social media outlets and technology tools currently available, those becoming available and the difficulty of managing them all. He suggested that I write an article sharing my perspective on managing the impact of the digital world on our lives. Oh, and I will tie this in to the 4th of July later. Read on.

The advent of social media has had a significant impact on all of us. Being a so-called “Boomer” myself, the impact has perhaps not been as great. But, believe it or not, I do have some friends and colleagues who are Gen Xers and even Millennials. These two younger generations are much more frequent users of social media than I. Some complain that they spend too much time with social media. Others say that they can’t do all of the things they would like to do on social media because the other parts of their lives (e.g., job, family, etc.) get in the way.

I am not a sociologist or anthropologist. I cannot scientifically explain the impact of social media on any group in society. However, as I look at it and break down the term, the definition is quite simple. From Dictionary.com:

• “Social -- …seeking or enjoying the companionship of others…

• Media -- …the means of communication…that reach or influence people…”

Using this definition, one could argue that social media goes all the way back to the first time a person transcribed letters on a piece of parchment and delivered their message to another person. But today when we discuss social media, we mean the explosion of technological communication which began with the advent of computers and the internet in the late 1990’s. In one website article I reviewed, titled The Complete History of Social Media—“The first recognizable social media site, Six Degrees, was created in 1997. It enabled users to upload a profile and make friends with other users (Sound familiar?).” Then came blogging and the creation of innumerable sites which give us all types of social media options—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, MySpace, Photobucket, Flickr, YouTube, Tumblr, Spotify, Foursquare and Pinterest—to name a few.

While some would just attack social media as an evil on society. I prefer to look at it as simply another form of change—one that each of us must deal with in our own way. I like to say there are four types of people who deal with change. Those who make change happen, those who deal with change when it happens, those who watch change happen, and those who wonder what happened after a change occurs. Not everyone feels the same about change and not everyone handles change the same way. Consider how you approach change as you develop your perspective on the use of social media in your life.

If you are someone who wants to understand the impact of change before moving forward with it, you probably use social media more cautiously than others. You want to understand how it works, how to use the various aspects of a particular site before you begin and how it fits into your overall communication style. If your view of change is adventuresome you may like to try out every new social media site that comes across the Internet. You will be more active and be immediately attracted to the most recent and trendy site. Each of us approaches the change that is offered by these tools in our own behavioral style. And just like every other aspect of our work and life, we cannot and should not expect others to approach these changes the same way we do. Think of how you have managed other changes in your life and take the same approach to managing the change presented by social media.

Personally, I do not jump on board the “change train” that quickly. I do not yet use social media to its best advantage. But as I try to use it more effectively, as I observe how it is being used by others and as I discuss its usage with others, I have learned some things to share with you:

• Carefully choose when to use an electronic form of communication but don’t forget the option to speak to someone face-to-face. Social media postings, texts, emails, voicemails and other forms of electronic communication are superb for transmission of data. But communication between individuals is not just limited to the sharing of data. It also includes opinions, nuances, subtleties, body language, speaking volume and context. These cannot be effectively “sent and received” in text messages, social media postings or emails. Face-to-face communications will always transmit such facets of communication more effectively. There have been instances documented by researchers in which people sit next to each other in an office or across the table from each other in a restaurant and send text messages—to each other! I admit. I don’t get it. If the sommelier came to your table to discuss wine, you would not expect him to take out his iPhone and message you the nuances of a particular wine bouquet, color and flavor.

• What happened to phone calls? We all carry these powerful communication devices around with us. When they first landed in our consumer laps, we were thrilled at the opportunity to be able to call almost anyone anywhere at any time. Yet we seem to ignore the purpose Alexander Graham Bell had in mind when he invented the telephone. We would rather leave voicemail messages to conduct our conversations than speak to someone directly. Worse yet, we often just defer to texting or social media postings.

• Many companies and organizations have their own internal social media sites and applications and guidelines to use them. Make sure you use them consistently and always within the established guidelines. These policies and practices are no different than any other policies and practices within the organization. As an employee, you have a responsibility to use them properly.

• As you post on social media websites, as you “share” things, as you “like” the ideas of others, remember that the internet is wide open and often freely accessible. Even if you have set up the appropriate security locks and chains, if someone wants to see your communication, they will find a way to do it. Whether you restrict what you put out there or not, there is always a risk that your post will be available to others that you might not have intended.

• While it is not likely that anything created by humans will last forever, I believe that many things you put out on the internet or in the cloud have the potential to be there long after you are gone. As a part of your own legacy, you should pass along accessibility to applications and websites you use to someone you trust, who will be responsible to take things down when you are no longer able to do so. Very few of us think about this. But I have heard of others who lament that fact that they cannot access websites, home pages and social media accounts of loved ones who have passed away. The experience of having something come back to you through the internet about someone you loved can be quite upsetting.

• Dealing with distractions associated with social media and technology is more complicated than it has ever been. When I grew up in business and had my first office, I had a secretary/executive assistant. I could simply deal with distractions by asking my assistant to take all of my calls. I could close my office door and not let anyone interrupt me while I was working on something important. In today’s environment, I may not have an office. I may have a cubicle or a table with a computer that also has chat boxes with fellow employees. I also have my own phone which announces its presence—ring, buzz, or theme from a movie--when it wants my attention. How often are you distracted by your “open space” and the technology around you? How often do you immediately respond? How much time does it cost you to recover and get back on track? Researchers have documented the cost of these distractions. You would be surprised and their impact. And don’t argue that you can “multitask”. The brain does not work that way.

• We all leave a trail of cyberspace bread crumbs as we go through the day-- clicking here and there. Savvy marketers the world over are following those trails to find more and more ways to determine what we do, how we buy, where we go, how we spend our money, etc. But, you control where you leave your breadcrumbs. You decide to click it or not click it.

Reflect on these thoughts as you prepare to download the next cool looking social media application that becomes available to you; or as you send your next text or email. I also suggest that you go to the TED website and click on the “social media” category. There are numerous presentations you can quickly watch and gather some great tips on how to manage your own use of social media.

Advances in technology and social media give us many different opportunities to communicate. They open up new vistas of thought and communication. Even though I occasionally bemoan the progress of technology, I believe that these advances do more good for us than not. Inevitably, the technology evolutionary cycle will continue. And, I am very optimistic about our social media future. Technological development and social media are more of a blessing than a curse. It is up to us how we let them affect our lives.

Now let’s go back to my earlier comment about the 4th of July. It is a most important holiday celebrating the birth of our country. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope that you took some time out of your busy lives to reflect on what it means to live here. Most of us don’t do that very often but we should. So here is one way I hope you make use of social media and technology.

Recently, there was a global event called Brexit. The people of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. I am not an expert in geopolitics. I don’t purport to know what is right and what is wrong with this decision. But shortly after the voting results were compiled and reported, I read a newspaper article in the Dallas Morning News (June 28, 2016) which reported that social media outlets exploded with “…furious articles claiming betrayal by an older generation deemed isolationist, bitter and short-sighted”. The article went on to cite that too few younger voters failed to show up at the polls and the final tally was carried primarily by the senior citizens of the country who voted at a more participative level. It went on to say that: “Low youth turnout in elections is a problem that plagues all of the world’s democracies. In the United States, youth turnout was at its all-time low in the 2014 congressional elections, at 19.9 percent of 18-29 year-olds.”

In November of this year, we have the next presidential election in our democratic republic. Pundits will argue that it is the “most important election of our time”. Whether it is, or is not, I ask every reader of this article—young and not-so-young--to take part in the process and vote. And I ask every reader to use their own social media skills to encourage as many others as they can to do the same. As November 8, 2016 approaches, make sure you exercise your privilege to vote. And use your own social media tools to encourage your friends, relatives and colleagues to do the same. This is one very positive way that we can use social media for the betterment of ourselves and others.

As always, I am interested in your ideas on this subject. Email me at ed@thinkstraighttalkstraight.com.