The Evolution of Social Networks and their Impact on Society and Business

A Brief History of Social Networking

Consider how the world has changed…

social-networksBack in the dim and distant past, people’s lives were based in small villages. You were born, grew up, worked, married, had children and died within a small distance from your home, and everyone knew everyone’s business. You would know the local tradespeople because you all went to the same church and drank in the same pub; your social and business lives were entwined. If you wanted to escape the gossip – or even from a misdemeanour – you had to move to another village a few miles away, possibly to a town or even emigrate to another country. There, you were not known; your previous life was hidden.

With the Industrial Revolution, towns developed into cities, often encompassing the small villages. Newspapers brought information about the outside world: global events were brought to small communities; criminals became less able simply to move to cover their tracks. Technological innovations – the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television – meant that news could travel around the world in increasingly short amounts of time. However, for the most part, the private lives of individuals remained private; apart from celebrities with their names and faces in the media, individuals were simply voyeurs, hiding in the shadows and reading about or watching the antics of others in the media.

And then along came the Internet. In a very short space of time, almost everyone had access to online news, with the ability to create their own websites and share information through chat groups. Information was travelling in seconds between individuals; groups of like-minded people came together from far and wide and the world effectively became a smaller place. Starting in the mid-1990s as online communities, these were the first social networking sites, encouraging people to interact with each other through chat rooms, sharing information and ideas via personal webpages. By the end of the 1990s, new methods were being developed, such as more advanced features for users to find and manage online friends. At the start of the 21st Century, sites such as MySpace and LinkedIn emerged, with what is now the largest global social networking site, Facebook, starting in 2004. Microblogging site, Twitter, which allows people to provide short, often real-time updates of their thoughts or activities in 140 characters or less, known as “tweets”, appeared in 2006. All of a sudden, it appears that everything about anybody is online. MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, WordPress, Instagram, Tumblr; the list of online social and business networking offerings seems limitless.

Today, huge numbers of individuals are writing about what they are doing, what they are thinking, telling the world about themselves and, basically, putting their lives online. Whether anyone is reading it or not is a moot point, but some of these web logs or “blogs” have become well known, in some cases leading to book deals and traditional publication. Watch television and, rather than simply sit back and enjoy, you are encouraged to interact with email, texts, Tweets with hash-tags, Facebook groups and so on. News updates are written by amateur reporters, tweeting updates about local events as they happen. Video footage and photographs of events are uploaded to social networking sites and used in television news reports. It seems as though there isn’t an event, however minor, that isn’t documented.

Even the language that we use has changed to adapt to social networking. References to “hashtags” (searchable identifiers in Twitter messages), “friending” (linking to other people on a social networking site) and “trending” (the most popular subjects at a given point in time) have become commonplace in the general language.

Be Careful what you Tweet

The global availability of news and cultural exchanges through online social media has been shown to break down barriers, leading to people learning more about the outside world.

On 17th December 2010, Tunisian street-vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest at the confiscation of his merchandise and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by local government and police officials. This triggered a wave of protests against the government system and is seen as the catalyst of the uprisings in the Northern African and Persian Gulf countries. Known as the “Arab Spring”, these protests saw unpopular governments and rulers removed from power or forced to change the way that they rule, by people now able to share information far more freely through social networking sites, which spread both discontent and inspiring stories of success from Tunisia, across North Africa and into the Middle East. In the early days of the protest in Egypt in January 2011, one activist described how the protests were co-ordinated through social media, stating: “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.”  This global freedom of access to information is generally seen as a good thing, with only a few countries limiting access to the free exchange of information in this way.

Sadly, the abundance of online forums for individuals to share their thoughts and images has resulted in some very undesirable behaviour. Examples of the worst of this have included groups of teenagers assaulting other people, whether peers, vulnerable adults or children, filming the activity and uploading this to “show off” what they’ve done. Although these assaults started as relatively innocuous with minor assaults known as “happy slapping”,  the violence in such incidents has also led to serious injuries and deaths, such as that of Ekram Haque in August 2009.  Fortunately, such activity also includes evidence of who they are and what they have done, so they are often quickly brought to justice; Haque’s young killers were convicted and imprisoned after pleading guilty to manslaughter.  Social networking sites are used by police to help identify those responsible for anti-social behaviour, searching for images and videos of offences that have been uploaded by members of the public as well as publishing photographs of people that they want to identify. In this way, they are often able to reach a wider audience than they have with newspaper or television in the past, far more quickly, as people share the images amongst their online friends.

Even at a far less serious level, people fail to realise the long-term impact of online posts. Posting photographs of your social activities might be a nice way of sharing these with friends and relatives, but be careful what you post and who is in your circle of friends – and what they might post about you!

Human Resource departments have been reviewing what is available online about people for some time; images of you in party mood can be a career breaker. But a new twist to this has appeared in the news a number of times over the last few months and relates to the inability to be able to differentiate between the real and online worlds – the sending of offensive “Tweets” or Facebook posts. An off-the-cuff, spur of the moment, jokey comment in a pub to a couple of mates, with a wry smile on your face will, most likely, be laughed off or considered to be “the beer talking” and forgotten in minutes. Whereas posting the same comment online is a lasting record which might result in legal action and, potentially, a criminal record; these have certainly been shown to cause distress and lead to life-changing events. A number of examples have come to light in recent years:

• In 2010, Paul Chambers was found guilty of sending a “menacing electronic communication” and fined for posting a “joke” threat on social micro-blogging site, Twitter, to blow up Robin Hood Airport when it closed after heavy snow. His conviction was later overturned, with the High Court judges accepting that anyone who read it may reasonably be expected to consider it as a joke; however this appeal process took 2 years.

• In 2011, a number of people were arrested, some prosecuted and imprisoned for up to 4 years, for incitement to riot by using social networking sites, including Facebook, to call for people to turn up to various city centres and riot. , ,  The damage caused by the riots was estimated to have cost between £100 million and £300 million in damage, policing costs and lost revenue.

• In April 2013, 17 year old Paris Brown, the youth crime commissioner for Kent, was forced to resign less than a week after her appointment because of posts she made on social micro-blogging site Twitter when she was between 14 and 16 years old that were claimed to contain racist and homophobic content, and condoned violence and drug-taking.

• In April 2013, after of the death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, social networking site Facebook was used by those who disliked her to popularise the Wizard of Oz song, “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”, encouraging people to purchase it via music download sites.  The song made it to number 2 on the UK singles chart.

• In May 2013, a motorist claimed to have knocked a cyclist of his bike via Twitter, which subsequently led to police contacting her on Twitter and asking her hand herself in. At the time of writing, this is still being investigated.

securityIt is important to remember that information or statements posted online stay online indefinitely, whether this is text, images or video. As Paris Brown found, a statement made as a naive teenager might come back to haunt you in later life. The written word is also often subject to misinterpretation; sarcasm does not work when written down, no matter whether or not there is a “smiley face” emoticon added at the end of the sentence. Other people might not find your sense of humour funny or they might be offended, not realising that it was intended as a joke.

This is a sample from a chapter in Security 3.0 available from Amazon.

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