The Dangers of Social Media that Threaten Their Sustainability

By Sarah Sorensen
August 13, 2009

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, MySpace - these are all great social media services that enable people to stay connected. They create a space on the network that give people an opportunity to explore, share and discuss virtually anything.

As I discuss in my book, social media can be used to communicate, listen, research, entertain and create a community. And when activated, these communities can band together to make great changes - generating awareness, raising money, creating pressure and rallying support around critical issues, disasters and injustices.

Social media tools and services are only increasing in importance to us as we integrate them into almost every aspect of our work, personal and civic lives. But, as more and more people adopt these tools to help them reach out and stay connected, the question becomes are they being used in a way that truly enhances all of our relationships? Are they sustainable?

My own opinion is that it's too early for us to declare victory. There are too many questions that still need to be answered before we can leverage all these social media services and applications to their full advantage.

For starters, we need to better understand the implications associated with playing out more and more of our lives online. What does it do to our relationships? What type of information should and shouldn't be shared, how frequently and with whom? Where are the boundaries between our work and personal lives - to what extent should someone's job be impacted by their actions/posts/opinions on their personal social networking sites? (We have seen people hired through social networking connections and fired for their posts.)

But while these sociological and etiquette issues are important to understand and fine tune, in my mind, the main caveats to social media revolve around security and privacy concerns. Most people use these tools without really understanding exactly what they are doing, revealing information that can be used in ways they never intended, which can be quite damaging.

It's one reason the U.S. government has banned solidiers from using Web 2.0 tools. Despite all the good they can enable, they are afraid that a soldier's security could be compromised because they know enemy's are watching and using social media tools to try to get an edge. The military issued a report warning "that terrorists could use Twitter via their cell phones to send and receive messages and to locate fellow cell members through links to Google Maps."

It's another reason why security experts are predicting that social media services will increasingly be a target for hackers - all the personal information contained within these sites represents a huge bullseye, so to speak, for identity theives and fraudsters. We have already seen attack activity go up - beyond the recent Denial of Service attack on Twitter, there has been a host of phishing scams trying to get users to reveal personal information (usernames, passwords, account or credit card numbers)? And once attackers have access to your computer (through malware you may have unwittingly loaded onto your computer when you clicked on a link or opened an attachment) and have your information, they can do anything with it. They already are - just check out the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporations Special Alert on the increase they have seen in fraudulent electronic funds transfers over the past year.

But attackers aren't the only ones interested in the wealth of personal information being revealed through these sites. Marketers are enticed by the rich databases they can build to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their consumer targeting. Is it beneficial or an invasion of privacy when these marketing companies pull together all of the personal information they can find from a variety of sources to try to determine what you want and how to get you to buy it from them? Would it be a service or an intrusion if a local restaurant advertisement were to pop onto your screen after you "Tweeted" you wanted to go grab a bite to eat?

Its for these reasons that regulatory agencies are struggling with creating guidelines that adequately balance an individual's privacy with a company or industry's ability to improve the relevancy of their dialogue and offerings. But we can't wait too long because that too has consequences. For example, the FDA has yet to come up with social media guidelines for drugmakers, which has left a gaping hole in the information available online relating to potential medical treatments. (There's a great BusinessWeek article "Why Drugmakers Don't Twitter" that goes into the nebulous social media state of drugmakers - who are not sure whether they have a right or responsibility to correct erroneous information online or reach out to their patients in mediums that they are most likely using - YouTube, Twitter, etc.)

All of these issues - security, privacy, regulatory - are holding back social media tools from truly sustaining positive relationships and change. We need to address them quickly so we can appropriately and responsibly use these tools to their full advantage. When we do - great things can happen.

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