How social media changed the world

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iol scitech sept 23 Zuckerberg AP Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Facebook.

Washington - When Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launched thefacebook.com in February 2004, even he could not imagine the forces it would unleash. His intent was to connect college students. Facebook, which is what this website rapidly evolved into, ended up connecting the world.

To the children of this connected era, the world is one giant social network. They are not bound – as were previous generations of humans – by what they were taught. They are limited by their curiosity and ambition.

During my childhood, all knowledge was local. You learned everything you knew from your parents, teachers, preachers and friends. If you were privileged and had access to a library or an encyclopaedia, you could learn a little more. You surely couldn’t follow and reach out to the people that you read about; learn what people all over the world had to say; or ask the difficult, uncomfortable, questions.

With the high-quality and timely information at their fingertips and encouragement from each other, today’s children are rising above the fears and biases of their parents. That is why youth in the Middle East are fermenting revolutions and the Chinese are getting restless.

Adults are also participating in this revolution. India’s normally docile middle class is speaking up against social ills. Silicon Valley executives are being shamed into adding women to their boards. Political leaders, such as US President Barack Obama, are marshalling the energy of millions for elections and political causes. All of this is being done with social media technologies that Facebook and its competitors unleashed.

As does every advancing technology, social media has created many new problems. It is commonly addictive and provides a tool for stalking children. Social media is used by extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere to brainwash recruits. And it exposes us and our friends to unsavoury spying. We may leave our lights on in the house when we are on vacation, but through social media we tell criminals who may want to rob us exactly where we are, when we plan to return, and how to blackmail us.

Governments don’t need informers. Social media allows government agencies to spy on their political masters, their own citizens, in a way that would make Big Brother jealous.

We record our thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes on Facebook; we share our political views, social preferences and plans. We post intimate photographs of ourselves.

No spy agency or criminal organiseation could gather the type of data we voluntarily post for them. We tell governments our friends’ names, contact numbers, and e-mail addresses, and tag photographs of them. And as computers become more powerful, they will be able to analysee our social-media information and correlate it with what our friends and acquaintances say about us.

The marketers are also seeing big opportunities. Amazon is trying to predict what we will order. Google is trying to judge our needs and wants based on our social-media profiles; it wants to be our personal assistant. We need to know the risks and keep working to mitigate the dangers.

Getting back to the bright side, major changes are happening in fields such as health care because of social media. Already, by analyseing Google searches, researchers can track the spread of disease across the world. Patients are able to converse with others who have had the same ailment as they now have and learn which remedies or methods worked for others and which didn’t. People are providing each other with advice and moral support.

The might of social media already has the Chinese government trembling. Its people are informing one another of local government officials’ atrocities and their abuses of power. In New Delhi, we witnessed a political revolution happen as an anti-corruption party came out of nowhere to gain power in the state elections. Political scandals in the US have become more common because people speak up immediately.

There is no greater force for democracy than social media, and this will empower the masses. So far, only about 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people have come online. During this decade, another 3 billion will gain connectivity through cheap tablets. Devices that have capabilities similar to iPads will be available for less than $50 (R550). Already, basic tablets with seven-inch (17.5cm) screens are available for as little as $40 in China and India. Before this Christmas, Datawind made them available in the US for as little as $38.

It is likely that the majority of the rising billion will use social media. But the winner won’t necessarily be Facebook. People will use social networks that are special purpose, geared towards local communities, and in local languages. In parts of New Delhi, for example, localcircles.com is gaining popularity. It connects neighbourhoods by allowing them to exchange information about water availability and domestic help; find blood donors; and report corruption. In China, Renren, Weibo and Weixin – which have their own specialties – each have hundreds of millions of users.

Regardless of what social media people use and whether we celebrate Facebook’s next 10-year anniversary, one thing is certain: we are in a period of exponential change. The next decade will be even more amazing and unpredictable than the last. Just as no one could predict what would happen with social media in the past decade, no one can accurately predict where this technology will take us. I am optimistic, however, that a connected humanity will find a way to uplift itself. – Washington Post

l Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of Research at Duke University, and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities. His past appointments include Harvard Law School and University of California Berkeley. This piece reflects his opinion.

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