Social media - part of modern life

NOT that long ago, if we had to be defined, it was by the merits of what we did for a living, where we came from, what our marital status was and other family and work-related roles.

These days our ‘personal brand equity' is judged by how many ‘friends' we have and by ‘what's on your mind?'

Social media, and more precisely, social networking is communicating with friends and family using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These new communication tools beg the question – are we really connecting more, or are we just more connected to our computers?

We live in a world that is celebrity driven and to many, their Facebook profile is an opportunity to produce and star in their own production – and including the most trivial thoughts and activities.

Social commentators cite virtual socialising as the death of real conversation. On Facebook and, more recently, Twitter everyone thinks that they are interesting and they assume others will think that too. There is no requirement for exchange or even acknowledgement.

For those who haven't embraced Facebook, you're likely to encounter feedback that you're somehow missing out. And even if you are a member, you're prodded if you don't participate regularly.

Recently I was visiting my ‘home' page, and I noted a photo of a friend with this caption, ‘Help John find his friends'. I know John and he has plenty of friends. He simply chooses not to spend time updating his profile and adding friends.

It's fair to say that Facebook had an auspicious start. Mark Zuckerberg was a Harvard University student who broke up with his girlfriend, a fellow student. To get even, he developed a website of all the photos from his yearbook so he and his mates could rank the girls according to their looks.

From this small network of Harvard students with dubious intentions, Facebook emerged as the world's favourite networking site with more than 400 million users worldwide.

But how do you control who sees you on these social networking sites and who doesn't?

The recent murder of a Sydney teenager, allegedly by a man she met on Facebook, has signalled the real danger of cyber connections. Police from Taskforce Argos, the unit that hunts online predators, have suggested that photos should be removed from public view.

The timing of the murder came as anger was already mounting over recent Facebook features that allowed websites to view and store your profile of visitors. Since the backlash from users about the difficulty of controlling privacy, Facebook has backed down and made it easier for users to control who sees information.

Facebook also recently attracted controversy in Australia for being slow to respond to concerns about pages that mocked the deaths of several children. The government is now considering an internet ombudsman to help users get a response from the site.

However, easy as it is to denigrate social networking, even as I write this piece, I have sent out a post on my Facebook home page asking friends if they have any online experiences to add to this story and, of course, the most obvious benefit to social networking is the potential to renew friendships.

Thanks to Facebook, I can now revisit friends in London and New York with whom I had lost touch and see almost anyone I care for in those cities.

As if Facebook wasn't enough, there is now the option to Tweet your friends, also known as Twitter. Twitter is sometimes referred to as the SMS of the internet, with only 140 characters allowed in tweets. As with Facebook, it's free to join. You can follow any person's Tweets on Twitter and others can follow yours.

With Ashton Kutcher ‘crowned' as the King of Twitter (recently dethroned by now Twitter Queen Britney Spears), it could appear at face value this network is for the young, but there are now more than 100 million users worldwide. Twitter is also emerging as an effective media and commercial tool – and even a cutting edge political weapon.

During the last US presidential campaign, Twitter use increased on election day. The Republican Party used Twitter to set up fake Democrat accounts to send out derogatory Tweets. Twitter closed the fake accounts and released a press statement saying that the Republicans got an A for innovation, but a D for ethics.

Each year Time magazine releases its list of the top 100 most influential people in the world, featuring the usual politicians, scientists and philanthropists. This year these illustrious names were listed alongside Ashton Kutcher for his online influence.

Most celebrities use Twitter to promote themselves, but Kutcher uses Twitter to send positive messages and raise money for worthy causes. In a 2009 campaign, Kutcher raised $900,000 for Malaria No More with a simple message he sent out on Twitter: “Every 30 seconds a kid dies from malaria. A $10 donation can buy a mosquito net.”

Obviously Facebook and other social media platforms have commercial aspects to their experience – just look on the right-hand side of the Facebook page to see the targeted advertisements. But there's a newer money-making aspect to Facebook.

Lisa Doust is a successful editor and journalist who has recently taken to posting on Facebook for a large hospitality group. Doust sees her social media work as an extension of her other writing, believing ‘there are some great new opportunities out there for copywriters and journalists. Forward-thinking companies are employing professional writers to get their message out there. It's a great way to build a brand and to directly communicate with your users'.

Doust lives outside of the metropolitan area, but feels connected to the city, thanks to her new job.

“I look after four different brands,” she said. “They are all different markets and different age groups. When I started, I did a couple of week's research, seeing what other similar sites were doing, then I conducted a mini-survey, asking young people what they are interested in, and what they are following. My challenge is to make the copy relevant and to communicate effectively.

“My 11-year-old son thinks what I do is really cool,” she said. “I include updates of the city-based music, arts and fashion events even though I live in the country. I'm still new at it, and it's been a steep learning curve, but it's so much fun – it makes me feel young.”

Which brings us back to the question, is online social networking only for the young and the self-obsessed?

The answer to that is personal. It's certainly not compulsory, and there is much to be said for both sides of the argument. But like any form of communication, the message will ultimately be judged by the intent, not the form.

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