It’s some years now since I posted my very first Tweet on Twitter and, following the advice of a best-selling online novelist, managed to get myself suspended on the very first day (must be a record!). The Twitter team thought I was a spammer; me, I put it down to enthusiasm.
Since then, I’ve become a little more circumspect and, on the whole, it’s been a positive experience; for me, Twitter works well.
Proceed with caution
Like any modern invention, there’s an upside and a downside. The ups are obvious – social networks are brilliant marketing tools, a great way to meet people from hugely diverse backgrounds, to keep in touch with friends, and to find out what’s happening around the world. Linking up can be exciting, refreshing and educational.
The downside? Well, one problem has already been mentioned; once logged into the site, it’s extremely hard to log out again, especially if you work from home as I do. When on Twitter, the hours just fly, the next chapter lies unfinished, and the dinner plates are still in the sink. How children with homework get on, I shudder to think. But there are more worrying factors which can affect all of us – and which can apply to virtually any use of the internet.
Loss of privacy
Twitter has around 500 million followers, while Facebook subscribers total almost 1 billion. Every message sent has the potential to go viral within seconds and we have no control over who has access to personal information. Fraudsters, burglars, cynical marketers and even abusers can exploit such information to our detriment. On a local scale, many a teenager has posted details of a forthcoming party only to be swamped by unwanted guests looking to cause trouble.
In her book, CyberSafe, Gwenn Schurgin O’Keefe points out that “large websites back up their databases. What we put on cyberspace never truly goes away. We have to consider it permanent because there is likely to be a copy somewhere; to think otherwise is foolish.”
Young people are particularly vulnerable to online bullying, from schoolmates with a grievance to total strangers, sometimes with tragic consequences; reports of children being driven to despair, self-harm, anorexia and even suicide bear witness to the damage caused by haters and trolls. Some children have arranged to meet ‘friends’ their own age, only to find the person waiting for them is neither a friend nor a day under 40! And every time they go online, there’s always the danger of inadvertently accessing websites featuring porn or violence.
These issues are – at least should be – obvious. But what about more subtle factors, such as:
Loss of reputation
A recent article compared a person’s reputation with a shiny new car. Suppose you own the latest model with flawless paintwork; you take it for a spin but, due to a momentary lapse in concentration, you crash into a ditch, leaving the vehicle a total write-off?
That’s what can happen to your reputation. A momentary lapse in discretion, a compromising photograph or a careless remark can quickly dent other people’s opinion of you. Families will forgive, true friends will understand, but what about potential employers? Often, the first thing they do on receiving an application is check out your Facebook account – would that picture of you mooning or leering drunkenly into the camera mark you out as a suitable candidate? According to Dr B J Fogg, author of Facebook for Parents, the answer would be ‘No’. He’s just one of millions who checks Facebook pages as “part of my due diligence. If I can access an applicant’s Profile and see junky things, then I’m not impressed. I won’t hire that person.” Why? “Because people who work with me need excellent judgment.”
Certainly, people tend to be less inhibited on social networks, and that applies to your comments too. What may seem innocuous or hilarious to you may be a big turn-off for others. Bad language, off-colour jokes and insulting remarks may trip easily from your fingers as you type, but are they really impressing anybody? Are they as witty as you think, or simply sad? And if they’re suggestive, you may attract the wrong kind of followers. Remember too that others can post comments on your page. As one 19-year old says: “Sometimes people post comments with bad words or double meanings. Even though you’re not the one who said it, it reflects poorly on you because it’s your page.”
Avoid the pitfalls
Before signing up for a social network, it’s good to set a few boundaries. Look at the potential dangers, decide how best to avoid them and create rules that will protect you from any fallout. Here are a few suggestions which I try to apply myself:
1) Be careful what you post and only do so when sober! If you wouldn’t like your parents to see those photographs or comments, why make them available to total strangers? Or worse – prospective employers! When texting, remember your manners. Try to ensure that every remark is gracious, ‘seasoned with salt’.
2) Check your privacy settings, as the default settings on the network site may let more people view your page than you imagine. It’s a good idea to customise your settings so only close friends can access your posts. Even then, you need to watch that you don’t give out more information than intended.
3) Should you receive a critical or negative response, don’t retaliate. If the criticism is well-meant, thank the sender for his/her interest. Ignore abusive comments and block them from your page along with any that make you feel uncomfortable. The same goes for dubious would-be followers or ‘friends’. Be selective and never open links from anyone you feel unsure of. Some may be pornographic or violent.
4) Social websites are constantly buzzing with gossip, rumours and opinions about people in the public eye. Be determined never to write derogatory personal remarks about anyone, famous or not, even if they seem to deserve it – after all, who are we to judge? Failing to observe this rule may, at best make you seem spiteful, and at worst get you sued for libel!
5) Remember your details are accessible to millions of people, including some who know you, so guard your privacy. Don’t give out too much personal information such as home address, email address, where you attend school, work or college, when you’re at home, when and where you’re going, when you’re at home, when nobody is at home, your photos, opinions, likes, dislikes and hobbies and innermost thoughts.
6) Set limits for the time you spend on social networks and stick to them. Doing this will help you control your online activities instead of letting them control you. And if social networks start to take you over, and you find yourself thinking constantly about your tweets, blogs and profiles, then switch them off. Or simply take a break from them, like these teenagers:
“I deactivated my account, and I had heaps of time. I felt free! Recently, I reactivated my account, but I have complete control. I don’t check it for days at a time. Occasionally I even forget about it. If my social networking account becomes a problem again, I’ll just deactivate my account.”
“I have taken ‘networking breaks,’ where I deactivate my account for a couple of months and then reactivate it later. I do that whenever I realize that I’ve been spending too much time with it. Now I don’t feel as attached to it as I used to. I’ll use it for a purpose, but then I’m done.”
By taking sensible precautions and rationing the time we spend on social network, we can use it with confidence -without filching too much attention from more important activities.
As for me, I feel quite an old hand now - in fact, it's a source of satisfaction to see some of my (very techie) website designer friends are only just getting started! And, of course, with time, I've become more atuned to potential problems and a lot more careful about whom I follow.
My personal 'no nos' include profiles with no tweets; tweets containing sexual references or bad language of any kind; profiles with no pictures or other personal touches; tweets which appear in one's timeline with no message -just a link; people with zillions of followers; direct messages (except for confidential info from a trusted contact); and anyone famous (who rarely write their own tweets!)
And here's an apology to anyone who has kindly retweeted me but to whom I haven't yet returned the compliment. Some of you are obviously lovely people and I'll always try to RT if I possibly can - especially if you're a writer. However, there are certain things I will not promote, such as erotica or the occult. I also try to remain neutral with regard to race, nationalism and party politics.