Facebook 2, Arab leaders 0

by Sarah Firisen

Ssp_temp_capture “Facebook 2, Arab leaders 0”, read a sign held by an Egyptian woman on Friday as the celebrations erupted in Tahir Square. In a sharply ironic turn of events, it seems that American software companies may have done more to bring about regime change in the Middle East than all the trillions of dollars poured into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the resulting deaths and casualties. There does seem to be no doubt that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had a significant role to play in giving a voice to the democracy-seeking citizens of Egypt & Tunisia and helping them to create a community of international supporters. If there ever is a judgement day, surely Mark Zuckerberg’s sins of inflicting Farmville and Mafia Wars on the world will be more than outweighed by the events of the last month of so.

And this makes me wonder, will people now stop saying that they don’t see the point of social media and that it’s an absurd waste of time? Of course, many of the things that people choose to spend their time doing on social media – see above comments re: Farmville and Mafia Wars – may not be the most productive things they could be doing. But, the same is true for almost everything; the fact that some people spend their time reading Harlequin romances, doesn’t negate the value of reading in general.

Whether its Second Life, Twitter, Facebook or a plethora of other offerings, there are many worthwhile, often beneficial uses of social media: disease support groups, public awareness campaigns, news feeds, educational programs, and more. Yes, there are an awful lot of videos of cats dancing on YouTube, but YouTube has also become a vital means of communication in and out of Tunisia and Egypt.

Perhaps some people spend too much time on social media; there may be a legitimate reason to worry about young people’s lack of in-person interactions with each other, and of course, there are the usual very valid concerns about privacy, viruses and spam. But can we all just finally agree that, while these concerns are legitimate and need to be discussed and addressed, social media is not a total waste of time and that it’s no longer okay to just wildly fling out the judgement that people who use it “need to get a life”?

If we can perhaps at least start from this point, then let’s move back to our discussions about young people’s use of these technologies. As I’ve stated in the past, I believe that social media is an inevitable part of life and that, rather than wringing our hands about it and trying to ban our children from it, we should instead educate and monitor appropriately. But now, I want to float this, I’m sure more controversial, idea: not only should we accept the role of social media in our children’s lives, perhaps we should embrace it. When two (and counting) countries can undergo dramatic, almost overnight and essentially bloodless revolutions, and when social media is accepted as having had a significant role to play, both in initiating and sustaining the protests, shouldn’t we at least consider giving these tools a role in education?

There was a time when companies actively discouraged employees from using social media, going as far as to block access to sites. And while some organizations still do this, far more are coming to realize that there is a real benefit to encouraging and teaching responsible use of these tools. Companies tweet and post press releases and other company news on Facebook, and it’s a good thing for them if employees then repost and retweet them. Employees can use their Facebook and LinkedIn connections to help their organization’s recruiting efforts, to troubleshoot and research job related issues, and to keep abreast of news and thought leadership related to their jobs; far and away my most frequent use of Twitter is to read articles and blogs directly related to my job.

Shouldn’t children, and I’m purposely saying children and not just teenagers here, be taught how to use social media to research, to promote causes they care about, to be informed, to be connected, to be inspired? There was a time when the use of the Internet by children was frowned on, but now Internet research is a common and mostly accepted part of education at most grade levels. And Internet research has brought with it a very important lesson that use of encyclopedias rarely surfaced: how to filter and bring a critical eye to information sources. Incorporating social media into a range of education subjects should and could be just as important.

Young people are usually very idealistic, environmentally conscious, and energized by what they see as social injustice. Shouldn’t we be doing more to help them use social media to explore and act on their concerns? Recent events in the Middle East could be the perfect teaching tool for showing how they can turn their undeniable fascination with social media to a greater social purpose.

Yes, there are real dangers out there. Yes, we need to be very careful. But again, schools could play a real role in educating responsible, sensible use of social media. And like everything else, at the end of the day, parents have to be involved, they have to monitor what their children are doing and saying.

By not doing more to teach and promote a responsible use of social media, schools aren’t just abrogating a responsibility, they’re missing a great opportunity.