The Dark Side of Social Media

Photo credit: Al404 on Flickr.

People are having conversations online all the time.

They are having conversations with their friends, with friends of friends, and with people who they have never even met in the terrestrial world.

They’re even having conversations with their favorite brands (at least representatives of their favorite brands.)

Social media is all about conversations and the exchange of ideas.

But, have you ever really thought about who you are talking to online?

If you are having an online conversation with someone who you know, or at least someone who you have met in person or someone who knows someone you know, you have a pretty good idea about who it is you are talking to online.

And, if you are having a conversation with a brand online it is a safe bet that you are talking to someone who works for that organization.

But, what about the people who you have never met in person?

There are a lot of good people in this world.

However, there are many bad people out there, too.

Child Predators, U.S. Congressmen, and Catfish

“Dateline NBC” exposed some of the sleazy people who lurk on the Internet with their “To Catch a Predator” series. The series featured hidden-camera investigations of adults who contacted children over the Internet for sexual relations.

And, by now, most people are probably sick of hearing about the Anthony Weiner Sexting Scandal, also known as “Weinergate.”

And then, there’s Catfish (affiliate link).

In the 2010 documentary film, Catfish, a New York man befriends a family from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Facebook.

I don’t want to play the part of spoiler, but what I can say is that the film definitely reminds us that the people who we meet online are not always who they seem to be. (Note: Some people have questioned the authenticity of the documentary. But, even if it is a fake documentary or a hoax, the cautionary tale it tells is one that we all should keep in mind when we make friendships online.)

James M. Titus

You’ve never heard of James M. Titus?

If you haven’t, don’t worry. I don’t think that many people have heard of James M. Titus.

The truth is that James M. Titus isn’t a person at all; James M. Titus is a bot.

In the April 29th, 2011, episode of “On the Media,” Bob Garfield points out, “Earlier this year, 500 or so Twitterers received tweets from someone with the handle @JamesMTitus who posed one of several generic questions: How long do you want to live to, for example, or do you have any pets? @JamesMTitus was cheerful and enthusiastic, kind of like those people who comment on the weather and then laugh heartily. Perhaps because of that good nature or perhaps because of his inquiring spirit and interest in others, @JamesMTitus was able to strike up a fair number of continuing conversations. Only thing is, there is no @JamesMTitus. He, or it, is a bot, a software program designed to engage actual humans in social networks. He grew out of a contest to devise a social bot, a contest staged by a group of techies calling themselves The Web Ecology Project.”

There are some very humorous interactions that James M. Titus had with the humans that it was talking to via Twitter.

However, the fact that there is a bot capable of fooling people into thinking that it is a human that they are talking to reminds us that there are some very serious things that we need to be aware of when we have conversations online. For example, are we being manipulated to do certain things based on our social interactions with bots? Or, are bots being put in place to destroy connections or put out false information to inhibit the actions of people in the offline world.

I would suggest that you take the time to listen to the NPR “On the Media” interview. And, if you want additional information on the Web Ecology Project, check out the last tweet that was sent out by @JamesMTitus on Twitter.

Update: The link on the tweet that was just cited is no longer working. However, you can find information about the Web Ecology Project on their website.

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the strongest proponents of the use of social media for many different purposes, including marketing.

In fact, I think that social media helps people be more social offline, because it makes it easier for them to find people with similar interests based on the information that others share on the Internet.

And, social media has also made it a lot easier to find out about all the cool things that are happening around the world. In fact, many of the things that I blog about were learned, either directly or indirectly, as result of my use of social media.

The point that I want to make is that people need to be informed consumers of the information that they receive via all mediums, including social media.

Not everyone has your best interest at heart. Some people are malicious. Some people are manipulative and greedy. And, other people are just bored.

The topics that I talked about in this post also have implications for your business.

People often feel that big business doesn’t have their best interests in mind and that corporations are trying to manipulate people to make a profit.

Many experts suggest that in order to win over customers, your marketing communications need to be transparent and authentic. And, I completely agree.

Anything that breaks the trust that your customers have in your business can be detrimental to your business.

Therefore, it is in your company’s best interest to be known as a trusted source for information, no matter how or where your company is interacting with its customers.

This is something to think about.

Now it’s your chance to be heard.

What are your thoughts? Do you think that you could spot a social bot? Have you thought about how bots could influence trending topics on Twitter? Will this post change the way you interact with people via social media? And, does it influence your opinion about what you read on social networking sites?

Chad Thiele

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.