There’s a lot on the Internet about how to use social media for commercial gain. There’s also scare stories on the dangers it represents to our health. However, there’s relatively little on how to use social media to make the most of our psychological health or even how to design services and tools that can help bring this about.
The idea of people having, not only access to pre-existing communities, but also the ability to tap into accessible and inexpensive ways of building new ones is exciting, but how are we supposed to benefit fully from a widespread approach to social media that could, yet rarely does, adequately address the personal, interpersonal and social failings we may bring to communities, failings that mean such communities do not even nearly reach their full potential and can even cause more problems than they solve? Sure, there are sites that cover psychological health and well-being, but this is rarely, if ever, competently linked with social media, when it could quite easily be.
I don’t believe that most online communities are equipped to deal with the psycho-social issues they may face and instead fall back on easy, traditional methods that sound good in the short-term (mainly because we’re familiar with them), but which may be damaging to groups and individuals looking further ahead. With this, I’m not saying that we should banish to an online oblivion people who don’t match up to a set of arbitrary standards. What I am saying is that what we see so often online – people introduced to the Internet and taught about social media tools – is not enough: members of communities may fall short in terms of their own psychological well-being and the ‘tools’ to improve that. Consequently, their behaviour towards others could be problematic, hindering communities in a cycle where people lack insight into where their problems came from, how they affect their own lives, along with the lives of others, and how to address this constructively. Likewise, many communities may never challenge how they do things because they fail to appreciate the potential psycho-social benefits of social media.
This is a pity, since social media can bring us into contact with people who can, ideally, expose us to alternative ways of thinking, being and relating to others that could be beneficial to us and the communities we are part of. Take the formation of groups. I recently discussed creating an online service with a potential client, who emphasised that the group would need to be moderated partly to safeguard the organisation’s image. I asked ‘why?’ but knew what the answer would be, an answer that fitted in with traditional ideas, but not social media ones. The answer, of course, is to facilitate, not moderate – to empower members of sites, not dictate terms to them. Maybe there’s not a lot to do in such situations but shrug your shoulders and resign yourself to the fact that many, if not most, organisations currently don’t appreciate that power and its distribution works – or should do – differently in social media, which calls for a more horizontal, rather than vertical structure.
Compounding this problem, it seems to me that too many people working in social media still think like mainstream media people (top-down, ‘sit down and listen’, etc.), so maybe it’s time to really think about what social media advocates ought to focus on so that this media can live up to the principles behind it in design and in communities in ways that improve our psychological as well as our social lives. If people are ever going to benefit from what social media can offer us in terms of challenging and improving on the ways things are done, perhaps we need to realise that life doesn’t have to be about the things the traditional mainstream media wanted us to think it’s about.
In fact, if we want to make the most of social media we need to recognise that many of those principles are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world that’s changing at a rapid pace. My guess is that we’ll eventually adapt and make the most of social media for our psychological as well as our social well-being and that people of a mainstream media disposition who are so vocal on the net today won’t be so prominent tomorrow.