Social media might rely on technology, but it behaves like a force of nature. We use it to talk with friends, collaborate, share ideas and build businesses, but no one is really in charge. Trying to guide social media as a whole would be like trying to steer a river — you would literally have to change the world to pull it off. Normally, that fact only troubles old-school PR types who can’t let go of their iron-clad message discipline long enough to see the benefits that come from being open to the crowd. While a lot of the stories we run in SmartBrief on Social Media are critical of that point of view, I think it’s smart to at least be aware of the openness of the medium and the risks that entails.
Reports of al-Qaeda using YouTube to spread their message of violence can serve as a chilling reminder of the medium’s power, as well as its openness. But it’s also worth remembering that this is a very old problem. Handwriting, the printing press, radio, television and the Internet all brought about huge shifts in the way ideas were shared, and they’ve all been used to disseminate ideas that were distasteful or even dangerous. Over time, we’ve learned to live with the dangers these old media present, but usually only after a few foolish experiments with regulation. As the potential dark side of social media becomes better known, it’ll be interesting to see how officials, companies and the general public react to realizing anew the risks that come with free speech.
What do you think? Does social media need to be baby-sat the way so many media were in their infancy? Should companies such as YouTube try to police themselves? Is there a role for individuals to play?