Chapter 1: Social media growth and global change – Public Interest and Private Rights in Social Media

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Social media growth and global change

Cornells Reiman

Abstract:

Through a remarkably rapid rise in the availability and pervasive use of social media, the once-familiar face of interpersonal communication, product promotion, information dissemination, political activism and governmental concern has changed significantly.Boundaries have blurred between personal and professional lives, as well as between nations, through international networks that bring people together as never before. It is vital, therefore, that all who implement social media strategies for organisations, or use it for personal purposes, are aware of what the digital world offers in the community, the political sphere and the workplace. Also, it is noteworthy that laws and enforcement alter in all instances to accommodate changes that are brought about by a new communications paradigm that has global ramifications. Plus, social media users generate a vast amount of data that can be mined for the purposes of social analytics.

Key words

social media

social media history

social activism

social media in the workplace

social analytics

legal implications of social media

Introduction

The Internet is an exceptional development that has transformed economic activity worldwide, more so in some countries than others (McKinsey, 2011). However, in addition to that marvel, there are a vast number of applications that have changed businesses, as well as the lives of ordinary people. I think particularly of social media, and doubt that a day goes by without a news report on how social media applications are used for the betterment, or the detriment, of society. We can only be amused, amazed or appalled at the ingenuity of people who utilise new technological applications for their own purposes, or that of collectives with which they are associated. The sheer size and reach of social media is also remarkable. Consider some recent examples, as are presented below.

According to statistics released by Twitter, users of that social media application send over 350 million tweets per day, being the equivalent of a 15 million-page book. (Tsukayama, 2011; Morrison Foerster, 2011). A subset of that is expressed in the traffic related to one topic. For instance, in a very short timeframe, Sina Weibo, which is China’s Twitterlike micro-blogging service, attracted more than one million posts related to a Japanese mayor who denied that the Nanjing massacre happened (Armstrong, 2012). Clearly, social media numbers are immense. Remarkably, music consumer research indicates that celebrities who bombard fans with Twitter updates are likely to have shorter careers than those who maintain an aura of mystique. Apparently, easy access to stars through social networking websites has made them less appealing and increases the likelihood of followers getting bored (Reuters, 2011).

With increased social networking involving children, a recent innovation is of benefit to parents. With the help of new software, parents can monitor offspring on Facebook without being ‘friends’. The programme scans Facebook profiles, communications and ‘friend’ requests, and uses algorithms to identify potential bullying, sexual overtures, or talk of drugs, violence or suicide. This alerts parents to signs of trouble in a child’s Facebook account without them being privy to content shared between friends (AFP, 2011a).

Furthermore, widespread use of social media applications has introduced new complexities to the legal and ethical environment of higher education. For instance, traditionally, social communications were considered to be private. However, with much of this information now published online and accessible by the public, more insight is available as to students’ attitudes, opinions and characters (Cain and Fink, 2010). Even so, at all levels of education, from primary school to universities, educators use social media to enhance classroom discussion. Students can comment, pose questions (that can be answered by anyone) and feel free to voice their opinions (Gabriel, 2011).

Wherever social media is used, it is worth highlighting the need for prudence, care and discipline, and checking settings when posting. For instance, a teenage girl in Germany forgot to mark her birthday invitation as private on Facebook. When posted, mistakenly, her invitation could be seen by everyone on Facebook. This went viral, and 15 000 people confirmed their attendance. When her parents found out, the party was cancelled, their home was cordoned off and a hundred police were present, with four of them on horses. Still, 1500 guests showed up. Some were detained, and a few were injured (Grieshaber, 2011).

This raises the issue of how social media is affecting society, or large parts of it, and leads to the view that we are entering into a new paradigm that is changing behaviour and society. Particularly, there are many young people who are defined as being a part of a cohort called ‘Generation C’ – connected, communicating, content-centric, computerised, community-oriented and always clicking. This significant group of people is expected to stimulate economic growth, and encourage public and private invest in faster and more widespread communications infrastructure (Friedrich et al., 2011). Such is also expressed by Chappuis et al. (2011) in relation to digital consumers falling into distinct groups characterised by the types of digital experiences they prefer. These include:

 digital-media junkies – the people most likely to be early adopters of new technologies – often younger men;

 digital communicators – those spending more time on social networks – often women; and

 video digerati – those more likely to consume Internet-based video.

Obviously, segmentation of users is beneficial for marketing purposes, as well as for social scientists.

Such segmentation is also undertaken elsewhere, such as the humanitarian space, as was done by Edward G. Happ, who is the CIO of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) based in Geneva, Switzerland. Also, he is Chairman of NetHope (www.nethope.org), a US-based consortium of 33 leading international relief, development and conservation nonprofits focused on information and communications technology (ICT) and collaboration. He provides wise words by suggesting that:

 technology capacity building for the vulnerable needs to be clear about audience and intention, and beware of unintended consequences;

 the most important participants on the team are the beneficiaries, and the most relevant technologies are the ones that beneficiaries adopt; and

 the prophets and the priests of technology can learn from each other, assuming both distance and proximity (Happ, 2011).

As might be apparent, social media applications offer very positive benefits for people, and organisations of all types. These arise in daily life for many users, even if only keeping in contact with selected friends and family members. Even so, there are negative elements, too. Incessant twitters from people full of self-importance, and streams of trivia, clog social media channels. As stands to reason, you can tell a great deal about a person and their values by what they post. This could be interpreted as a positive outcome. However, when any of that online activity goes too far, it is good to know that laws, and lawyers more so, are very much up to date with what must be done in situations where there is an obvious objection, or actual offence.

To state the absolute obvious, social media is an incredible event, and a wonderful experience, and this has had an impact upon a large proportion of the global population. As is generally accepted, social media is a wonderful marketing resource for generating brand awareness and connecting with prospective consumers and/or supporters. Also, these applications provide individuals, collectives and companies with a solid yet flexible platform that facilitates the crafting of valuable connections and lasting relationships. It is all about community, a sense of community and a community spirit. The issue, then, is what binds people to become part of a collective, and what keeps them together, such as to advance a common ideal, or share in a broader experiences that, in itself, is the social media community.

Essentially, communities can form for any number of reasons. For instance, there is a Facebook page dedicated to people who are called Phil, or Phyllis, Campbell. These people even arranged a convention in a tiny place called Phil Campbell in Alabama (Severson, 2011). In effect, any community is Web 2.0-based and user-driven, with communication provided by users creating and sharing content (whether text, graphics, pictures, audio or video) through computers or mobile technology, such as smartphones.

Fundamentally, accelerating technology facilitates the social media phenomenon by way of making access to others entirely transportable. In addition, this means that users of such electronic devices are contactable – constantly at that – thereby providing additional impetus to interactivity through social media. Simply, people are brought together, even when physically disparate. Of course, usually, people keep their connections within a particular social network, as provided by any one of the hundreds of so-called vertical social networking sites that are based on common interests of participants, such as books, music, online games, ethnicity or geography.

No matter what the social media bond is, all boundaries blur in terms of what traditionally had stopped people from communicating effectively in times past. Consider, here, that distance is now irrelevant as people can connect with others located in the next street or across the globe.

Time is immaterial, in that messages are sent, accessed by others and responded to in an asynchronous manner, meaning that such interactions need not occur in rapid succession, as occurs in face-to-face conversation, or in other forms of real-time communication, such as telephony or instant messaging.

In addition, social media applications allow for complete freedom of expression as no one is present who can obstruct them. As such, the transfer of ideas and opinions is effortless. That in itself can be a form of catharsis, as it could lead people to say more than is prudent, which can become problematic if others take offence.

Clearly, we live in a connected world, although not all people have Internet access. Figure 1.1 puts this into perspective.

Figure. 1.1 You and the rest of humanity Source: Author’s own composition

As is generally agreed, each of us is related to anyone in the world through the oft-mentioned six degrees of separation. But you do not need to connect with everyone, even if that was possible. For instance, you have your immediate contacts, such as family, friends, business acquaintances and others. Then there are less necessary contacts, followed by the rest that constitute the remainder of the world’s vast population.

The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.

Bill Gates, founder, Microsoft

Some history

Before we continue on our journey together, we should have a look at what brought us here before we can explore more about the impact of social media on the lives of many worldwide. Table 1.1 provides some history as to how we have social media in such abundance today.

Table 1.1

The quick history of social media

Time Event
1971 Email began – although in simple form through dial-up.
1978 Bulletin boards began with BBS (Bulletin Board Systems).
1978 Web browsers are born through Usenet.
1994 Geocities is founded, being a web-hosting service and, so, becoming one of the first social media applications. This business went public in 1998, was purchased by Yahoo! for $3.57 billion in 1999 when it was the third most popular website, and closed down in 2009.
1994 theglobe.com, another social media pioneer, allowed users to personalise their online experience, publish own content and connect with others who have similar interests. This business began with a record initial public offering of $850 million and, three years later, its market capitalisation had fallen to $4 million.
1997 AOL Instant Messenger was launched.
1997 Sixgdegrees.com was launched, and allows for profile creation and the listing of friends. The user base grew to 3 million in the first three months.
1999 Blogger – a blogging service – was launched, and was purchased by Google in 2003.
2002 Friendster was launched and pioneered the online connection. Membership peaked in 2008.
2003 MySpace was launched. It was bought by News Corp in 2005 for $580 million and was receiving more than 75 million visitors per month in 2008. It was sold in 2011 for $35 million.
2003 LinkedIn – a corporate social networking site – was launched.
2004 Facebook was launched, originally, as an application to connect students at Harvard University.
2006 Twitter – a text-based social media application – was launched.
2006 Yahoo! offered to buy Facebook for $1 billion. The offer was declined.
2008 Facebook overtook MySpace – on the basis of the number of unique visitors per month.
2009 Facebook hit 350 million members in December, and 400 million two months later in February 2010, and 500 million five months later.
2010 Facebook passed Google in terms of weekly web traffic.
2011 LinkedIn was launched as a public company with a valuation of $4.3 billion. That market value more than doubled in the first day of share trading.
2011 Twitter celebrated its five-year birthday – the social media giant was by now delivering 350 000 000 000 tweets per day.
2012 Facebook expects to launch with an IPO that is likely to be valued at $100 billion.

Note: $ = USD

Source: Based on Morrison Foerster, 2011. Also, see Bennett, 2011 and Sundheim, 2011

Certainly, history shows that there are successes and failures along the way. Still, what will remain, regardless of the names and owners of social media applications, is the vast number of users. Currently, as is reported generally, there are over 800 million Facebook users, more than 500 million Twitter users, over 135 million people in LinkedIn and so on. All of these numbers can only increase as the present Internet user base of 2.5 billion people continues to grow. Also, there is obvious, increasing interest in getting connected with friends, colleagues and anyone almost anyone else. As such, any Internet user has the avenue to connect with millions of people in over 200 countries. (For additional information, see www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.)

We have technology, finally, that for the first time in human history allows people to really maintain rich connections with much larger numbers of people.

Pierre Omidyar, founder, eBay

In fact, social media users, collectively, are larger in size than almost all countries, other than the People’s Republic of China and India. This is a stunning and sobering reality as to the way of things in the digital age. Certainly, there are likely to be related consequences when many people can connect so very effectively, and share their various interests and ambitions.

Social media and social activism

Social media facilitates social change at a family level, as well as at a national level; this has been evident when protesters engage in rallying through electronic means. With the advent and rise of the Internet, for example, social activism is now more powerful, especially in terms of its potential and actual reach. As indicated, we are now able to connect with more people than was ever possible previously, and social media applications facilitate contact with people who have similar views regarding possible problems in society.

Also, via media reports, we have seen the sheer power of user-driven initiatives, such as people using Facebook and Twitter to raise money, assistance or other support for victims of natural disasters, and political unrest. Since early 2011, the same applications have played a prominent role in distributing public sentiment and galvanising demonstrations in Egypt, elsewhere in the Middle East and around the world. Governments fell or trembled, as much because of people power as because of the physical or economic oppression that prompted popular rebellion.

So it is that social media is linked to social upheaval. Occupy Wall Street led to Occupy Other Locations (Voigt, 2011). This movement provided the means by which concerned citizens, as well as radical elements, showed their dissatisfaction with the prevailing social, political and economic order. Yet, despite what often captures the attention of news reports, social activism need not be politically motivated. For instance, in China last year, a concerned citizen mobilised sufficient support to stop a truck from carrying hundreds of dogs that were destined for slaughter. In this case, the social medium used was Sina Weibo, being much like Twitter, and showed the emerging shift in attitudes with regard to addressing issues in a country that supports no animal rights, or protection, other than for wild animals (Xinhua, 2011).

Essentially, we see that social media is a powerful tool of protest and subversion that can connect and motivate people. Governments, especially in developing countries, are mindful of this particular issue, and this has led to reduced freedom of the press. Of course, the obvious response to electronic avenues of opposition is for governments to deny Internet access. In effect, we could say that social media applications – especially the ever-popular and effective Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – have become political tools with tremendous clout when wielded by the right number of users. It is no wonder, therefore, that less-than-open governments that are under pressure to change policies and relinquish powers are likely to react adversely to any protests.

If communications systems can be used to fuel and fan the flames of pro-democratic intentions, it is understandable that shutting down Internet access is an obvious remedy for nervous governments, as is curtailing phone usage for protesters. Egypt did this in early 2011 in response to an uprising of so-called people power. It is noteworthy that the impact of that five-day shut-down was a cost to the Egyptian economy of US$90 million (OECD, 2011).

Understandably, the Arab Spring, in the form of the continuing wave of civil uprisings in the Middle East region, continues to attract attention for any number of reasons, with social media influences being one. This is reflected in Figure 1.2.

Figure.1.2 Indicators of change – Middle East and North Africa Source: Media Tenor International, 2011

As can be seen on the next page, Facebook surpasses Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network, as the most-quoted source at that time. Interestingly, there is an argument against the prevailing view that social media helped spur the protests in Egypt, as per research by a graduate student at Yale University. While Twitter posting, texting and Facebook wall-posting are great for organising and spreading a message of protest, it is suggested that social media can also spread a message of caution, delay and confusion (Cohen, 2011).

Social media reports, as in Figure 1.2, are now very much in the mainstream of media monitoring and media content analysis. Of course, such analysis is not limited to socio-political tension in the Middle East and North Africa. This is because protests, political agitation and government disquiet are common contributors to human history, and modern means now bring more of this to light, and faster too. For instance, activists in Belarus, in the former Soviet Union, claimed that an opposition group’s page on a Russian social media site was blocked by the government to stop further protests and that other illegal actions were undertaken to prevent the protest actions called for on the Internet (BBC, 2011).

Of course, even to casual observers of current affairs, it will be of no surprise that social media has affected every political arena, positively and negatively. For example, over the past decade, politicians have used social media as a promotional tool. Assorted governments, even in tightly controlled Singapore, prepare for the general elections by making use of social media applications when reaching out to the electorate, as these can also serve as a platform to introduce new candidates (Mydans, 2011). It is worth noting, however, that new political candidates are not always primed as to the power of public scrutiny. So it is that personal details, such as photos, are circulated on the Internet, with this generating negative publicity.

In relation to positive publicity, US President Barack Obama made history by taking questions posed to him on Twitter. In a virtual town hall meeting, with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey as moderator, Obama responded to live tweets as a new way of engaging directly with voters across the nation. Symbolically, 140 invited guests were in the room, with that number also being the maximum amount of characters that Twitter can handle per post (Norington, 2011).

Then, we find that technology and protests join together in political hacking, such as when an official Twitter account that was operated by Fox News posted malicious tweets claiming President Barack Obama had been assassinated (The Australian, 2011a). The issue of hacking is an unfortunate by-product of Internet success, and widespread social media usage. Following on from this, it is significant that the power of social media has attracted the attention of military agencies, especially in the wake of Arab uprisings that are generally accepted to be driven by Twitter and Facebook. Top military officers have expressed concerns about the apparent lightning pace of change in the Middle East, and social networks there are seen as an engine for protest against some longtime US allies.

This recent history has prompted the Pentagon, more specifically the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), being the US military’s high-tech research arm, to seek the help of scientists in determining how to detect and counter purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation on social media networks. The goal is to get ahead of the curve of events unfolding on new media and, thus far, DARPA has allocated US$39 million for the Social Media in Strategic Communication programme (The Australian, 2011b).

Social media at work

As is generally understood, social media can be used to promote a company, or other organisations, and its products or services. Additionally, social media can facilitate the way that an entity can interact with clients and the wider marketplace in which it operates. It is plausible that this can foster new views about product development and improvement.

Nevertheless, despite all of the possible benefits accruing to an Internet-connected entity, the popularity of social media applications, especially Facebook, has reached nigh on epidemic proportions, and that has bled into the workplace. Understandably, many employers are concerned about lost productivity, whereby social networking leads to social not working. In addition, there is the security of confidential information, as well as the security of systems, due to the possibility of viruses and malware. Plus there is the misuse of business assets for personal purposes, particularly related bandwidth depletion, and it seems to increase over time, especially when pictures are involved. So it is that social media usage at work can constrain business systems, and has a cost to the employer.

The usual Internet usage policies relate to non-work downloading, accessing unauthorised websites, as well as engaging in hacking and spam generation, or sending offensive emails and attachments. This can be extended to include social media access. For instance, a policy statement can be set to appear on a computer screen each time that a person signs on. Certainly, employees need to be made aware of any policy if it is to be adhered to, and if it is to be enforceable.

Complete blocking of access to various sites, if not the entire Internet, is a possible way to go, although this can be heavy-handed when employees, increasingly, require Internet access to do their work. The loss of productivity in such a situation is not limited solely to the likes of the aforementioned Egyptian government. Therefore, consider the need for more focus on what employees do with their time at work, as well as what they do with computing and telecommunications equipment that is available to them. Ideally, any policy that restricts Internet usage should be shared with employees, such as in the form of a signed declaration; it could also be appended to any employment contract.

The more we use the internet, the more we use it for our direct personal or financial benefit.

Christophe Jouan, CEO, Future Foundation

Monitoring and management, with regard to Internet access and usage, is advisable, as is enforcement if policy breaches are found. An alternative is to provide monitored access whereby connection with known sites (such as Facebook) leads to a report to management for possible follow-up with employees. Employment termination can be a consequence. Yet consider that social media access can be viewed realistically as a way to gain, and maintain, satisfied employees, thereby reducing the cost of hiring and training. This is also a way of retaining valuable corporate knowledge.

Whatever policies and restrictions are placed in relation to online social media access, it is quite obvious that phones and Twitter can be used if conventional IT avenues are closed. It can be concluded, therefore,that social media is an inevitable aspect of business life. (For more information on social media in the workplace, see Lurssen, 2010.)

Figure 1.3 provides thought-provoking detail as to the issues related to the use of social media applications in the workplace, with accessibility and control being paramount importance to any organisation.

Figure. 1.3 Web 2.0 tools in the workplace – accessibility, informality and control Source: El-Sayed and Westrup, 2011

While there is much to glean from this diagram, for the purposes of this chapter, it is evident that social media applications span much of the area, in terms of both scales that relate to accessibility and security, as well as structure. In the latter case, as can be seen, there is less emphasis on structure for social media applications and usage; this is understandable given that these, by their very nature, are user-driven and not a part of enterprise systems.

In seeking to increase engagement within the workplace, note that email is rapidly being replaced by social networks. Particularly, people are finding it easier to stay in touch using services such as Facebook, and this is now finding its way into the workplace. Similar to Facebook, an application called Chatter provides each user with a communications stream by which to see postings from other people within a work group (Grayson, 2011).

It is worth remembering that different benefits and issues arise when connecting with friends, colleagues and bosses. In the latter case, a boss could see more of a work-colleague’s life than would happen otherwise. There is also the matter of how interrelationships should appear. Social media, in effect, adds insight that was not available before the advent of tech-connections. Private life and professional life can become one when all contacts are swept up in the same social media application. That is not healthy.

For some, such as teachers, schools are the workplace. There, faced with scandals and complaints involving teachers who misuse social media, schools are imposing strict guidelines that ban private conversations between teachers and their students on handheld phones and online platforms like Facebook and Twitter (Preston, 2011). Interestingly, if not understandably, given all that has happened with Internet access and social media in business circles, a recent development in the corporate sector is the rise of the Chief Digital Officer (RRA, 2011).

The matter of social media policies, as referred to earlier, is something that can plague executives, managers and employees alike. Of particular concern is ‘getting the message across’, which is necessary to reduce the chance of costly legal issues. As more companies and their workers tap into the world of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, employers are stumbling due to legal potholes related to social media (Borzo, 2011).

Social analytics

An accelerating development to come out of social media is that of social analytics, whereby services are provided by business enterprises that mine and assess social media data. Although these are mainly of interest to marketing professionals and brand managers, it is noteworthy that this niche service industry is based on ready access to the massive amount of data that is generated by users of social media applications, such as Twitter and Facebook. By evaluating social media streams, including the size of user networks, what is created and how other users respond to any such content, it can be determined who is influencing (or influenced by) particular topics, such as brands. For instance, see klout.comwww.lithium.com peoplebrowsr.com, www.radian6.com and www.sysomos.com.

In addition to business-related analysis, social media usage is data-rich and can be mined for various other reasons. For example, Cornell University sociologists used language software to detect the presence of positive words in 509 million tweets from 2.4 million users in 84 different countries over a two-year period. This work has indicated, among other things, that people around the world are happiest in the morning. Positive peaks were also witnessed around midnight, and weekends, with assorted conclusions drawn as to work-life balance (Carey, 2011).

Of course, access to social media data and activity has number of consequences for users. For a start, there are legal implications, as the laws will vary from one jurisdiction to the next.

Legal implications of increasing social media usage

With the simplicity of Internet-based communication, and the means by which social media helps make that even easier, it is worth considering how little thought there might be in relation to creating content, and especially posting and sharing that content with others. This can have significant legal implications. For instance, consider people who cut and paste material without considering ownership issues, such as copyright. Then there is the additional problem of intellectual property rights, as must be considered in situations where there is a serious risk of violation. Trademark infringement is a similar issue. Or, all too frequently, there are people who fail to check whether something is factual before passing it on.

The personal character of a user also comes into play, such as whether they have standards that differ from others in the social media community, or people in the broader public who can access any content. For instance, someone might not think that another person will find their posting to be offensive, indecent or otherwise inappropriate. Worse still are people who use social media vehicles to harass others or spread maliciousness. This leads to two key points. One is the potential for defamation, or even action related to harassment or discrimination. The other is that social media applications invariably have a database that stores content and traffic, as can be accessed by aggrieved people in any related court case. Essentially, it pays to be prudent when engaged in social media activity, especially when a user is not familiar with everyone who has access to postings.

On that point, it is of particular interest that Europe is considering a new law that, if implemented, will force social media companies and others to obtain explicit consent from users about the use of their personal data. This will mean that, at the consumer’s request, their data files are deleted forever. If this is not done, under the current proposal of the sweeping law, associated Internet-based companies will face fines for failing to comply once the law comes into effect, which could be in 2014 (Thierer, 2012; Ausloos, 2012).

Despite the European development, the issue of privacy is very much alive, in as much as whether any communiqué was meant for a select, vetted, known and fully understood group of users. Even so, others interested in possible problems, such as colleagues, fellow employees, employers and law enforcement professionals, could become involved in determining the validity of any posting. Again, prudence rules the day, especially when any right to privacy is eroded through the previously mentioned reality that content and messages are stored in social media systems, which can be accessed by other people who were not considered to be a part of the initial transmission.

Obviously, the critical issue is that of privacy, especially when personal details are accessible via social media applications. This raises the important question of what people are prepared to publish about themselves. Essentially, there is the risk that too much information, which can be confidential, is readily displayed in social media applications for others to see. This is not likely to be an issue if other users of the particular application, particularly those with direct access to personal details, are reliable and trustworthy – but that is not always the case. In addition, there is the added and obvious risk of hacking, as has happened on some social media sites, where details were stolen.

It seems that privacy is something that we cherish more so in the physical domain than in an electronic one where people readily give information about themselves, if only because they are prompted to do so through empty fields and related questions on social media web pages. Furthermore, there is the matter of magnification. For instance, a solitary tweet can have ramifications as it is read and resent, with this entertaining and informing a broader audience each time. The end result can affect the reputation of a person, company or brand in a very positive or negative way.

The new order driven by assorted forces of widespread social media usage has led to changes in relation to law and enforcement. Legal action is taken against respectable citizens for expressing their points of view online. Laws take people to task who use social media for malicious purposes. In each case, there is room for interpretation, resulting in new areas of law and precedents being set.

For instance, marketing, which is an avid user of social media, can have issues, such as protecting brands online. Traditional legal remedies, such as litigation, may not be the best way to protect your brand in the online stratosphere (see Lezaic, 2011). Although related not to a product but a person, implied meaning, such as of a tweet, can lead to legal action (Baird, 2011). More recently, in Australia, legal action against Twitter may result in a change of the defamation law in that country, which could have implications for social media sites too (Whiteman, 2012). On this theme, the government of Brazil is suing Twitter over posts that tip off drivers as to police roadblocks. The government contends users are ‘directly endangering life, safety and property’ (CNN, 2012b).

However, it is noteworthy that Twitter has said that it will delete users’ tweets in countries that require it, doing so on a case-by-case basis. Note that users will be informed if their tweets are deleted, and that these tweets will still visible to the rest of the world. In effect, it is a form of censorship. However, examples of countries where tweets may have to be restricted include Germany and France, both of which ban pro-Nazi content. Twitter will operate in those countries but censor pro-Nazi tweets (CNN, 2012a).

With social media being communal, if not public, this has led to even stronger reactions to postings than those just mentioned. In the case of Mexico, for example, the drug war there has targeted, threatened and murdered, most viciously, people who post anything not liked by brutal criminals (AFP, 2011b). In that country, it is clear that technology plays a prominent role in describing and denouncing violence. For instance, Twitter users report gun battles and fiery road blockades. Also, a website lists victims’ names and details of how they died, and a blog posts gory photos of gruesome killings and videos of drug lords’ confessions (Shoichet, 2011).

On a lighter note, yet still one of concern, fraud experts call for Internet security to be taught in schools as children’s identities are stolen via social networks. This is because children tend to post basic details about their lives on Facebook, such as their date of birth, school, name, email and photographs. In turn, this provides enough data for a criminal to apply for a credit card, loan or documents in the child’s name. Essentially, children give too much of themselves away, and that will become a problem when the children reach 18 years of age and criminals fraudulently activate applications in the name of that person (Fraser and Tin, 2011).

While children do use social media willingly and readily, it can have an added downside from the goodness that is expected from the fostering of friendships. For instance, a teenage girl was too afraid to go to school after net bullies hijacked her identity, with this leading to an assault at a local shopping centre (Gilham, 2010). Elsewhere, a lawyer sued three girls who posted a mean-spirited video about his daughter on Facebook (NewsCore, 2011).

Social media users can also work together for good. For example, hundreds of witnesses to riots – triggered by an upset at a hockey final in Canada – responded to a police request. Social media users posted images of the violence online in a bid to identify those who were responsible. Along with law enforcement officials, Facebook groups urged people to identify the rioters (Sunday Telegraph, 2011).

Similarly, people have posted pictures online of people who have mugged them, ransacked their homes, or caused other injuries and crimes. This has led to the successful apprehension of perpetrators, as well as the return of lost property. For instance, a woman found her bike lock had been ripped out of a brick wall and her bike was missing. Quickly, she tweeted news of this loss and included a mobile phone photo of the thief that a neighbour had taken at the time of the crime. The bike rider was a social media manager, with more than 3000 followers and, less than five hours later, one of her followers spotted the thief and informed police, which led to her seeing the bike again (AP, 2011).

Given what is known of user demographics and habits, it is little wonder that social media is perceived as being an addictive technology, with Facebook having overtaken music as the number one way that young people define themselves. Remarkably, this has promoted politicians to insist that social networking sites enforce an age limit that denies access for children under the age of thirteen years (Brooks, 2010).

You can have a Facebook page and invite a dialogue with users on an ongoing basis for years, if you so choose.

Blake Chandlee, VP Europe, Facebook

In relation to emerging legal issues in social media, see Strutin (2011a, 2011b), Fraser (2009) and Ossian (2009). Also, if planning to go online, see Digital Business (2011).

Conclusion

Social media need not be confined to the use of prominent applications, such as Facebook and Twitter. Companies can create valuable connections with key stakeholders, including clients, customers, employees and suppliers, doing so in order to engage them in conversations that lead to business improvement.

With the rapid growth of technological advancement, as well as the related rise in creativity of application developers, we see the opportunity to expand personal networks beyond physical realms. The success of social media, as the name suggests, rests upon the prominence of user-led community-building. However, the rising trend is fed by socialising in some areas, as well as a more pointed purpose in others.

The pervasive tone is one of intent as to a person’s actions, or the more strategic efforts of an organisation. How do social media users behave? How do organisations plan social media interactions in seeking a broader audience for their message, whether commercial or humanitarian?

There are additional questions to ponder. Does any social media application, or usage made thereof, fall within the rule of law? Alternatively, does any such activity sit within the bounds of social norms? In effect, the social media paradigm is a digital version of what transpires in the physical space. That is to say, people reach out, interact, communicate, promote, boast and preach. Yet we cannot forget that there is one distinct difference, which is that an audit trail remains, and can be agglomerated and stored for assorted purposes, whether this is for the benefit of marketers seeking emerging consumer preferences, or governments searching for untoward political activism and possible opposition.

What is obvious in all of this, and everything that we now see coming to us through social media, are the far-reaching implications of deep and widespread change in almost all aspects of our lives. As such, much depends upon what the vast community of social media users do when connecting with others, whether for pleasure or for business. An enticing question is the extent to which societal norms affect social media. Perhaps the opposite is true, in that the social media phenomenon will filter into society in ways that will have an impact upon standards of behaviour that we presently see as acceptable. This, of course, is for researchers to explore who, with the availability of existing data and related commentary, have a unique opportunity to assess how social media growth will lead to further global change.

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