May 8, 2013 10:43:06 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - firstname.lastname@example.org
Two weeks ago, the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted more than 128 points within seconds. The reason? The Associated Press had sent a message to nearly 2 million followers on its Twitter account, stating that two explosions had rocked the White House, injuring President Barack Obama.
The tweet was a hoax. The AP had fallen victim to hackers who took advantage of the social media platform to cause temporary mayhem.
Though the stock market quickly rebounded, the lesson caught the attention of many who had previously dismissed Twitter, Facebook and their ilk as frivolous pastimes with little impact.
Love it or hate it, social media is here to stay, Solokal Social Media Marketing co-founders Ben Hurt and Greg Sykes told members of the Columbus Rotary Club Tuesday at the Holiday Inn on Highway 45.
Facebook, in particular, has become ubiquitous, and a quick show of hands proved Hurt's point. Nearly everyone in the room said they had a Facebook account, and most said they used it every day.
As a former teacher and technology director at Heritage Academy, Hurt saw first-hand the benefits -- and dangers -- of social media use among teenagers. Some of those dangers, which range from online predators and bullies to revoked scholarships and damaged job opportunities, have become the daily fodder of newspaper headlines.
The problem, Hurt said after the meeting, lies in the way people use social media. Many see it as a way to express themselves and give insight into their personalities and interests. But there is a false sense of anonymity. Even when sharing very personal things, there is an impersonal, disconnected feel to it, leading people -- especially teenagers -- to share things they might later regret.
"The status (entry) today on Facebook is like the private diary of 20 years ago," Hurt said. "A kid came home from school and had a bad day, pulled out a diary or wrote in the journal about problems they had during that day. Today, a teenager comes home from school and they go to Facebook. They post what's griping them, what's bothering them and that's how you really get to know someone. They put their whole life out there for everybody to see."
Parents need to be actively involved in their children's social media use, he said. In addition to sending a "friend" request to their children on Facebook or following them on Twitter, parents also should have the passwords for their accounts so they can bypass security screens that allow tech-savvy teenagers to post one set of messages for their friends and display a more benign online presence for their parents and teachers.
Though his children are too young to be involved in social media -- 13 and older is the Terms of Service standard for most sites -- he said he will let them have social media accounts when they are older, with one caveat: He will be intimately involved in their online activities, able to log in at any moment to see everything they are doing.
While it is a way to protect children, it can also be a way to bond with them.
"Sit down with them and go through those steps," Hurt said. "Say, 'Show me how to use Facebook and Twitter. Show your children you're interested in what they do. It's more than just sitting down at the dinner table together."
From colleges that monitor the accounts of scholarship recipients and potential recruits to employers who use social media to screen applicants, every online step is being scrutinized and offers an opportunity to misstep.
Approximately 56 percent of employers check the Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts of potential employees before making hiring decisions, he said. Some even ask applicants to log in and show them the private details of their accounts or give them their passwords. It is not illegal in Mississippi, and it is becoming more commonplace every day.
But there are positive aspects to being involved with social media, too, he said, particularly for business owners. He believes every business owner should have at least a basic website to provide contact information and a Facebook fan page to encourage customers to interact and develop brand loyalty.
The audience reach can be astounding, he said. Though a business may have only 200 online followers, they are immediately connected with each of those followers' connections, potentially expanding their online influence to tens of thousands of people.
Interaction is important, he said. While many people simply post links to their products or self-promotional items, the benefit of social media -- when used properly -- lies in the ability to have conversations with customers, gaining valuable feedback.
The most important thing for people to realize, he said, is that even if they are not actively involved in social media, it is impacting their personal and professional lives.
"Have you Googled yourself or your business lately?" he asked. "You're not going to get away from (social media). You can't get away from it. You've got to embrace it. You've got to take it and use it for good."
Social media is a tool, he said. And like a hammer, which can be used to build a house or hurt someone, social media is much the same.
"It's a tool you want to use for construction, not destruction," he said.
Still, social media has been slow to catch on in some parts of the South, a fact he attributes to the region's narrative culture.
"Our grandparents and parents were storytellers," Hurt said. "It wasn't something you could get out in 140 characters. In the South, we were raised differently (from other regions) in how we communicate."
But though change may come slowly, Hurt believes it is inevitable.
"Eventually, we will become Twitter users, just like the rest of the world," he said.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.