The near-universal availability and low cost of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter has helped millions stay in touch with family and friends. As with many technology revolutions, however, social networking also has a negative side. People can, for example, become dependent on the Internet for social needs at the expense of face-to-face relationships.
Maintaining Social Ties
Social networking sites have become a convenient way to keep up with the lives of the important people in your life. The sites act as a "bulletin board" of messages, photos and other media, giving continual updates from the people you know and inviting your participation. In most cases the sites are sophisticated and easy to use, easing tasks such as posting comments and uploading photos, allowing even the technology-averse to join in.
Companies of any size can cultivate an online presence with social networking sites, providing a friendly outlet that allows active participation to the public. A restaurant can, for example, use social media to gauge public reaction to new menu items, or an entertainment marketer can measure the effectiveness of a movie trailer from its view count on YouTube. Authors, actors, politicians and other public figures use social media to promote their interests; Barack Obama's presidential campaigns, for example, serve as case studies in the savvy use of Internet media. At a more down-to-earth level, professionals can post work histories and build a network of colleagues on career-oriented sites such as Linkedin, Networking for Professionals and Plaxo, helping to discover better job opportunities.
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The ability for social media sites to connect people extends to rescue efforts during disasters; people can post notices of the missing and rejoin with family members separated during tragic events. Essential service providers such as utilities have kept the public informed through online social networking. Government agencies have also used social media to issue emergency warnings and related statements.
Malicious online behavior can become a real problem for social media participants. Cyberbullying is harassment conducted via text, email, and messages on social media, with consequences for the targets ranging from anxiety and intimidation to suicide in some cases. Cyberbullying can take many forms, including stalking, revealing personal information, insults and threats.
A study by MIT psychologist Sherry Turkel has revealed links between reliance on social media and weakened personal relationships. Online social media can act as a substitute for genuine friendships and real-life social interaction; it is in many cases easier in cyberspace to follow the posted comments of people you know rather than personally visit or call them. Social sites also let you make connections with those with whom you might have little in common, giving a sense of involvement that may in reality be superficial.
Commercial Exploitation of Private Information
Most social media outlets offer accounts for free; however, they generate much of their operating revenue through targeted advertising using data gathered from members' posts. Although social networking sites have policies and online tools designed to protect privacy, these sites have a commercial interest in the data you provide, including your personal information such as your age, gender and the schools you attended, posts describing your tastes in entertainment, and mentions of places you've visited on vacation. The data, once gathered, is sold to brokers in relationships and deals hidden to social media users -- with billions of dollars at stake, personal privacy has taken a back seat to corporate profits, at least in the United States. In addition, the value of this data "gold" is not lost to criminals; in 2012, hackers stole the Facebook records of 6 million users.