The Explosion of Social Media: Blessing or Curse?

John Mariotti reflects on his 2008 observations of emerging social media trends.
President & CEO, The Enterprise Group
February 10, 2012

It’s been almost three years since I wrote a post for SmallBizTrends.com as part of a “Point-Counterpoint” feature on the emerging phenomenon of social media sites. My “Against” position touched off a firestorm of controversy—with equally enthusiastic comments both agreeing and (vehemently) disagreeing. I won’t list some of the names I was called, but a few of them were not very nice. So be it. The goal was to stimulate thought and discussion, and we sure did that.

Since then, I have been asked repeatedly if I have changed my perspectives and the answer is: of course I have.

Here are some of my observations from 2008:

Point-Counterpoint on Social Media—Against: In spite of the fact that I have always been an early adopter of new technology—or communications-based tools, social media turns me off. When I think about why, at least 10 reasons come to mind.

I have signed myself onto a couple in their early stages—at the urging of friends—and that’s when I realized why I wouldn’t have anything more to do with them, at least until they get much further down their evolutionary trip and improve measurably. Here’s why:

1. Social Media/Networking is an invitation to at best, uncontrolled and permanent over-exposure, and at worst, identity theft or misuse.

I still feel that reason No. 1 is as valid as it ever was. The explosive growth of Facebook and the “permanent over-exposure” it provides to millions of people’s private actions, feelings, photos and intentions constitute a “ticking time bomb” that can explode at any time. How? In many ways. Privacy intrusions, identity theft and countless crimes have occurred due to Facebook exposure, and more will happen. On the other hand, Facebook is a social interaction tool of epic proportions allowing both social interaction and an array of commercial uses that were unimaginable just three short years ago.

2. All of us are drowning in a tidal wave of complexity already, and these social networking sites make this complexity worse by an order of magnitude.

3. Social networking is in the evolutionary stage, and as such, all of the sites that exist now will change, evolve become either more useful and secure or go away.

I also stand by reasons No. 2 and 3. It's imperative to understand the level of complexity social media introduces into a society that is already far too complex—to our detriment.

4. Just when a lot of people learn to use one of the social networking sites/systems, someone will come up with a newer, better, cooler or more fashionable one.

As for No. 4, while still true, it is less of a concern as the sites have grown through the initial phase and are now entering a new growth based on text messaging and smart phones instead of e-mail and personal computers. Get ready to learn all over again.

5. Security of social networking sites is as great a risk as passing business cards around in a busy bar. No matter how many times the site owner/operator promises your information will be protected, secure, etc., the lure of money will make them liars. Someone will buy the site for the contacts that come with it—period. 

Reason No. 5 is more of a temptation and threat than ever before. Some of this has already happened, in spite of reassurances and safeguards claimed to protect privacy and personal information. More will happen. My prediction in early 2012 is that by 2013, Facebook, LinkedIn and a few others will have found “rationales” for selling private information to commercial users. Watch it evolve. Nothing will ever be truly “private” again once posted on these hugely popular social media sites.

Reasons No. 6-10 have admittedly been dragged into the social media swamp. Once in, there was no way to get out of the “swamp.” The only alternative is to learn enough to control what is controllable, choose wisely when opting out of things, and use preferences and other options to maintain an illusion of control and privacy.

6. There are many other, more focused ways of networking and marketing instead of placing your identity, your information, photos, etc. in the public—very public—domain.

7. Real business people realize that this social networking trend is superficial. True relationships may originate in e-mail or other similar venues, but must become personal and not electronic to be of meaningful value.

8. The hassle of meddling with your computer and the so-called “easy to use” interfaces of such social networking sites is far too great compared to the complexity it adds.

9. When I want to expand my network, I want to choose who will be involved and know that their involvement is willing and enthusiastic—not the result of an e-mail and a few clicks of the mouse.

10. I am simply too busy to meddle with something that is at least largely populated with people who have nothing better to do with their time, or others who think is it somehow an easy way to really be connected to a lot of people.

The last statement shows how perilous it is to predict the future of a technology driven innovation. It is easier than ever to be “connected” (electronically, that is) to more and more people, many of whom you barely know or don’t really know at all. The award winning movie, The Social Network does a fine job of showing both the birth of Facebook—and its darker side.

The bottom line: The pervasive nature of social networks and their power is hard to ignore. The permanent over-exposure and risk they present is similarly hard to imagine. Perhaps the legend written at the edges of ancient maps by map makers is an apt warning about venturing too far into these huge networks: Beware: Out there be monsters! Danger!