The Futility of Abstaining From Social Media: A Plea for Rationality Search Engine

Mashable just published an article surveying some of the recent stories of people rejecting social media (Anti-Social Media: A Rising Rebellion Against Web 2.0?).  They cite examples like the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, workplace bans (citing productivity concerns), and the phenomena of teens rejecting Facebook.

An abstinence-only approach to social media will likely be as ineffective as the abstinence-only approach to sex education: both rely on ignorance and are based on the assumption that one can control the behavior of others.  It’s far more effective to  be pragmatic and arm people with information so that they’re empowered to make decisions about their future.

Problem is, it doesn’t matter if a handful of teens are rejecting Facebook; that’s not going to stop information about them (or any of us) from ending up online.

The details of your life are online whether or not you choose to publish them: friends and neighbors are posting photos of you, corporations are digitizing records, and government documents are going online.  The process has been slower for digital immigrants, but for digital natives – it can begin even before they’re born as parents and relatives post sonogram photos or blog the intimate details of the pregnancy.

Don’t believe me?  Search for yourself with Pipl (a seach engine focused on gathering information about individuals) and see what you find.

I sympathize with the privacy concerns (I, like most, used to do everything online under pseudonyms), but here are two realities you can count on:

  1. More information will be published about you online.
  2. The tools we use to aggregate, sort, index, and categorize information online will continue to improve.

In that context – abstaining from social media seems a bit foolish.  By trying to stay off the grid, you’re voiding your say in how you’re portrayed online.  People (university admissions offices, romantic prospects, and employers) will invariably use the web to learn about you, and it’s prudent to participate in the identity that is created for you online.  At the very least, it pays off to have a Facebook account so that you can keep track of what your friends are saying and posting about you (and ask them to hide or untag photos/videos or other content that you’d rather not have go public).

Employers attempting to force employees to abstain from social media to maintain productivity might want to more closely evaluate that approach.  First, it’s expensive and time-consuming to try to block access to everything online (and most efforts can easily be defeated anyway).  Second, it hasn’t been established whether or not social networking adversely affects productivity (the research thus far is pretty skimpy – and it’s mostly based on surveys as opposed to measuring/observing employees at work).  You’ll likely want to evaluate the type of work each employee is doing and consider factors like these before making a decision:

  1. Do they need to incorporate creativity in their work?
  2. Do they need to collaborate with others (including customers/clients) on their work?
  3. Do they need to be aware of current events or social trends?
  4. Do they need to stay in contact with co-workers/customers/clients who aren’t within yelling distance?
  5. Do they need to frequently reference resources to do their job?

2 thoughts on “The Futility of Abstaining From Social Media: A Plea for Rationality

  1. Oleg says:

    Social media is just another fad that this generation has adopted. It is neither technologically innovative (180 character messages ? or photo sharing ?) in the technologies it uses nor a revolution in “communication”. At best it has generated a LOT of garbage and non-productive information. Real businesses that “manufacture” and “produce” goods and services that are tangible and financially relevant to the GDP of a nation don’t depend on social networking for anything. Most companies are on there because their competitors are and neither they nor their competitors know exactly what the whole point of their presence on Facebook or Twitter is considering the spending power of the Teenager and geriatric community is quite minimal and no real transactions, contracts or negotiations can be done over these mediums.

    Further, I submit that it is quite possible to remove yourself from the online social networking world completely. Your photos don’t need to be uploaded by your friends or neighbors to the web if you take control of any photos that involve you and do not allow their distribution in the public forum. Also, the information by most companies, universities and governments of individual information is restricted to proper access only. So search engines like Google and the like cannot “bot scan” your information and post it for the world to see. The more technologically savvy people become the more they realize the futility of social-networking and the risks involved with careless dissemination of personal information.

    So far, the positives of social-networking are a mere handful yet the negatives and the risks involved don’t make it work the handful of positives.


    1. Derek DeVries says:

      Predictably I would disagree with a few of the points you raised.

      Social media isn’t something adopted only by one generation. While it was first adopted by younger audiences, it’s now been picked up by older generations (which have represented the fastest-growing demographics for some time now). People called email a fad decades ago, and it’s become the gold standard for communication in virtually all professions. As ubiquitous as email is, it’s use has been eclipsed by social media.

      It’s not the individual features of social media (it’s actually 140-character messages; the original default limit for the alpha text protocol on mobile phones) that make it innovative; it’s the grand aggregation of all the myriad contributions that gives it power. Contributing content is as old as the Internet itself; but the ability to access and wield that content at blinding speed with algorithms is wholly new. These “Web 2.0” tools have decimated or restructured entire industries, from the travel industry, to retail, to the news media.

      Social media hardly has a monopoly on producing garbage and non-productive outputs. Virtually all media have done the same – and even manufacturers are capable of such things (something I’m reminded of every time I tour a dollar store or walk past the impulse item section of the checkout line at a supermarket).

      The idea that “real” businesses don’t use social media is without merit. I think you’re narrowly viewing social media only as a tool for promotion. In fact, social media is increasingly critical to virtually all manufacturing organizations given the effects of globalization and the need to communicate across timezones and continents to ensure operations remain efficient and productive. Social networking isn’t only for engaging external audiences: it’s increasingly critical for employees within an organization to remain in constant contact with each other. In addition, it’s become the single most dominant tool for recruiting employees.

      Unfortunately it’s impossible to remove yourself from the social networking world completely. Government entities and private corporations are constantly publishing information about you online. Security cameras and passersby on the street are uploading photos and video of you to the collective digital portfolio we all have in the digital ether. We do not control what is uploaded about us because information about us is digitized with or without our consent. Case in point: BP recently lost a laptop loaded with claims information. Even if one were to move away from society out into the wilderness like Ted Kaczynski – satellite photos/video of one’s dwelling and activities would appear on Google Maps.

      While some institutions are good at restricting access to personal information (only under penalty of law) – that could easily change. Protections for consumers continue to erode, and they certainly don’t apply to information volunteered by consumers (which happens every time you walk into an establishment, or make a purchase). I predict eventually even that information (possibly even medical records) will no longer be held behind firewalls.

      Thanks for your comments, though – I enjoyed hearing your perspective and I hope for much of it (particularly regarding personal privacy) that you’re right.


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