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The mounting popularity of social networking sites (SNSs) among Internet users across the world certainly demands an introspection of their shorter-term and longer-terms effects on individuals as well as societies. Available statistics demonstrate that an estimated 1.5 billion people across the globe have already created their profiles in SNSs, with the majority being on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Ning and Tagged (Das et al., 2011).
At the surface, it is believed that SNSs have a great potential to essentially alter the character and scope of our social engagements on all fronts – individual, interpersonal, as well as societal (Ellison et al., 2009).. But while common practice always assumes the shifts to be beneficial, this paper seeks to demonstrate that SNSs have negatively altered the framework for social interactions that bind society together.
Understanding Social Networking Sites
In the literature, SNSs are defined as web-based services that provide people with the capacity to “… (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (Tokunaga, 2011, p. 425).
SNSs popularity continue to rise throughout the world, especially among adolescents, not only because of the way they have changed how this group of the population receive information (Neelamalar & Chitra, 2009), but also due to their equalizing effect as users often feel the freedom to express themselves in ways not possible via other offline channels (Cardon et al., 2009).
However, there exist salient issues that need to be illuminated to understand the actual effects that SNSs are having on the social relationships that act to glue the society together.
Social Networking Sites: Unveiling the Defects
By virtue of the fact that online social networking is a type of virtue communication that allows users to connect with each other, there exists a very constricted gap between private and public life in this modern age of communication as users find themselves helpless in controlling the distribution of content they have already uploaded on their profiles (Das et al., 2011).
This disposition has occasioned serious personal and social consequences as individuals increasingly find themselves being rejected for job postings due to content they had posted on the sites, not mentioning that a sizeable number of users have already lost their life savings to online fraudsters who visit their profiles and use the personal information available to estimate a person’s social security number and ‘steal’ other sensitive information.
Advocates of SNSs have argued that users of these sites can change their default privacy preferences to keep the fraudsters at bay, or to prevent sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands.
However, a research conducted on 4000 Facebook profiles of Carnegie Mellon University students revealed that only 1.2 percent of the users took time to change their default privacy settings (Das et al., 2011), implying that many users do not care if their sensitive information, which could fundamentally alter their relationships with other members of the society, becomes open to public discourse.
The second point deals with work productivity, which is known to be the mainstay of the society. It is within the realms of public knowledge that a society that does not work cannot look after itself, not mentioning that it cannot prosper or achieve the dreams of prosperity (Tokunaga, 2011).
However, owing to the proliferation of SNSs, people are spending considerable work hours chatting with their friends and browsing sites to update profiles. Indeed, extant literature demonstrates that “…it becomes a compulsive habit to visit own profile several times in a day for checking friends updates, changing status, and commenting on others photos and videos” (Das et al., 2011).
In the workplace context, the attention of employees is distracted as they routinely visit the sites to update their status and communicate with friends, occasioning major adverse consequences on their productivity and customer satisfaction levels.
Of course some advocates of SNSs would like to argue from the viewpoint that employers can always install monitoring software to dissuade employees from visiting these sites during work hours; however, it has already been found that monitoring of employees’ online activities raises serious ethical and legal concerns (Ellison et al., 2009).
More importantly, the monitoring software is not full-proof, meaning that employees could still engage in these actions that bring adverse societal ramifications in lowered productivity and heightened customer dissatisfaction levels (Cardon et al., 2011). A recent study conducted on 237 corporate workers revealed that about eight in every ten employees use Facebook during work hours, resulting in 1.5% slump in their productivity (Das et al., 2011).
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The third point revolves around the fact that some SNSs “…have loosely articulated social or interactional norms dictating appropriate actions and behaviors” (Tokunaga, 2011, p. 426).
In using SNSs, many people are unaware or ignorant of the context-specific social norms because of the inadequately specified set of conventions, further degrading the social fabric because these people end up relying on social behaviors learned and negotiated in offline contexts to direct their online actions and behavior. Equally uninteresting, a sizeable number of users end up relying on social behaviors learned in online contexts to guide and direct their off-line relationships, actions and behavior.
Fourth, many online social norms, according to Tokunaga (2011), are characterized by carelessness and impoliteness, not mentioning that they have the potential to adversely demoralize the interpersonal relationships that act to hold the society together. In other words, it can be argued that constant interactions via social networking platforms have inexorably harmed interpersonal relationships that glue society together by providing a forum for negative incidences that result in relational strain.
On context-specific norms and interpersonal relationships, advocates of SNSs would want to differ by putting up the argument that “…through social networking, people can use networks of online friends and group memberships to keep in touch with current friends, reconnect with old friends or create real-life friendships through similar interests or groups” (Neelamalar & Chitra, 2009, p. 126).
However, the germane issue is the context-specific norms used to relate to online friends and if these norms could still be used in furtherance of offline interpersonal relationships that are key to the stability of the society as a whole.
Findings reported by Tokunaga (2011) demonstrate that not only are the context-specific norms for the two types of relations essentially different and hence cannot compliment each other, but some norms and value systems learnt in SNSs are adversely affecting interpersonal relationships, through which the foundation of the community is grounded.
Lastly, it is a well known fact that the ambiguous and elastic concept of “friends” on social networking platforms has always presented further concerns through which millions of visitors to these sites must navigate. As postulated by Tokunaga (2011), “…friends merely refer to the contacts individuals create on SNSs, which obscures the nature of the relationships between users” (P. 426).
People who have never met even for a single day suddenly become the best of friends because of their presumed shared interests that are matched in the arena of online protocols. Not only has this insensitive disposition of friendship continues to hurt the very basis of society (Das et al., 2011), but the dichotomous categorization of friends and non-friends on many of these networking platforms acts as fuel to many of the social problems encountered by users (Tokunaga, 2011), including falling prey to fraudsters and sexual offenders.
It is possible that advocates of SNSs may seek to downplay this issue of the creation of strange friendship bonds on account that people are free to talk to anyone across the world (Neelamalar & Chitra, 2009), and that these sites have assisted communities to minimize transaction costs for finding and connecting with ‘friends’, who may share one interest or concern but deviate on other dimensions (Ellison et al., 2009).
These assertions, in my view, are valid to the extent that some of these friendship bonds have provided opportunities for some users, including but not limited to, job openings, educational prospects, skills acquisition and knowledge sharing.
But we have seen the consequences of users who unconditionally accept friendship requests from strangers and end up being killed and mutilated in a presumed sex party. We have read in the news how children as young as 10 years are hijacked for ransom by their presumed ‘online friends.’
It is indeed true that most SNSs have beneficial outcomes, but care must be exercised so that these sites do not alter the framework for social interactions that bind society together. Important issues relating to privacy, work productivity, context-specific norms, interpersonal relationships as well as the conception of friendship, need to be evaluated in more detail to ensure that the society does not suffer under the heavy baggage of the social networking sites.
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