Social Media: Blessing or Curse?
Of the two recent studies making headlines this week, one brings good news and the other warns of grave risks.
The good news first: New research shows that in a social network, happiness spreads among people up to three degrees removed from one another. That means when you feel happy, a friend of a friend of a friend has a slightly higher likelihood of feeling happy too. And the more connected you are to happy people, the happier you feel.
"We get this chain reaction in happiness that I think increases the stakes in terms of us trying to shape our own moods to make sure we have a positive impact on people we know and love," explains Professor James Fowler, co-author of the study and professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego.
"We've known for some time that social relationships are the best predictor of human happiness, and this (latest study) shows that the effect is much more powerful than anyone realized," Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard told CNN. "It is sometimes said that you can't be happier than your least happy child. It is truly amazing to discover that when you replace the word 'child' with 'best friend's neighbor's uncle,' the sentence is still true."
Earlier this year, President-elect Barack Obama's campaign rewrote the rules of successful presidential election campaigning as it embraced social networking and Web 2.0 technologies to reach out to young American voters across the nation. The dramatic success of the Obama campaign in fundraising and energizing young, affluent voters and on college campuses has been quite phenomenal. Obama significantly outraised funds by at least two to one, to the tune of $750m in small contributions, and defeated the powerful Clinton Democratic machine as well as his Republican opponent John McCain.
While almost no one questions the power of social networking in transforming the lives of under-30 Americans, there are concerns being raised about the risks of social networking. As the membership of social networks and the users of social media applications such as Facebook, MySpace, and Orkut grow dramatically to hundreds of millions in the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America, it seems that this phenomenon is still in very early infancy in Pakistan. As of now, there are about 200,000 Pakistanis on Facebook, about 100,000 on Orkut, and a few thousand on MySpace. There are smaller social networks such as Naseeb.com that have a few thousand Pakistani members as well. While Naseeb.com bills itself as a Muslim social network, it seems primarily focused on match-making. Recently Naseeb has started a Pakistani job-search site as well. Pakistan's middle class is estimated to be about 25m people, larger than the population of several European countries and Australia. With such a large middle class population, only a small fraction is participating in the social networking phenomenon. The reasons cited for this minuscule participation include the lack of access to the PC and the Internet, lack of familiarity, and shyness standing in the way of appropriate public self-expression. While I acknowledge that these might be contributing factors, I believe the main factor is the lack of a socially and culturally appropriate content and welcoming environment that suits the Pakistani sensibility and taste. It is something hard to describe but it is something you know when you see it. A new social network called PakAlumni Worldwide has recently been launched to serve this exact need and to encourage Pakistanis to participate in larger numbers. It is still in its early days with about 800 members but growing rapidly. The membership includes a large number of Pakistanis living in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and various parts of Asia. The social connections made via PakAlumni can easily turn into business connections and help build support for important social causes. PakAlumni can also help bring the Pakistani diaspora together to grow closer and more prosperous and help Pakistan achieve greatness in the process while improving its civil society and image.
As to the risks involved in social media participation, a recent hoax on MySpace led to the suicide of a 13-year old girl in Missouri. Megan Meier thought she had made a new friend in cyberspace when a cute teenage boy named Josh contacted her on MySpace and began exchanging messages with her. Megan, who suffered from depression and attention deficit disorder, corresponded with Josh for more than a month before he abruptly ended their friendship, telling her he had heard she was cruel and told her "the world would be a better place without you".
Lately, IT executives in large corporations have expressed fears that employees using social networking sites may download viruses that wind up on their employer's computers or reveal information about themselves on the networking sites that compromises their employer's business secrets. To prevent such problems, some companies, including Intel, ban their workers' access to social networking sites. Not only do employees put their companies at risk, they also expose themselves to identity fraud. McAfee's list of top 12 Christmas scams this year warns that people on some social-networking sites have been receiving messages that say "You've got a new friend." When clicked, the messages downloads software that steals their financial information.
Social networks and social media applications are like any other powerful tools at our disposal. They can be extremely useful in connecting us to the world and increase our wealth and happiness, but they can also bring serious harm to the lives of young people who tend to be more open to sharing personal information with strangers or clicking on malicious links.