February 18

COMMENTARY: Social media has changed the world

Vivek Wadhwa

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 encyclopedia, 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 also are 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 President Barack Obama, are marshaling 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 solicit and brainwash recruits. And it exposes us and our friends to unsavory 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 home and how to blackmail us.

Governments don’t need informers any more. 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 organization could actively gather the type of data that we voluntarily post for them.

We tell governments our friends’ names, email addresses and contact numbers, and we tag photographs of them. And as computers become more powerful, they will be able to analyze our social-media information and correlate it with what our friends and acquaintances say about us.

Marketers also see 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 be aware of 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 analyzing 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 all over the world are providing each other with advice and moral support.

The might of social media already has the Chinese government trembling. Its people are informing each other about 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 United States have become more common because people speak up immediately.

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