Twitter turns 7 today, and here's a wish to wish while blowing out the
candles: Would someone explain why, given the slew of highly publicized cases of
embarrassing, self-destructive or career-ending uses of social media, people
keep shooting themselves digitally in the foot?
Exhibit A is Steubenville, Ohio, where graphic tweets and posted photos and video helped convict two high school football players of raping a 16-year-old girl. That was Sunday; the next day, two girls were arrested and accused of making online threats against the accuser and victim.
It was merely the latest evidence that an immutable law of human nature and a key to human survival -- we learn from our mistakes -- seems to have been suspended online.
Dave Kerpen is CEO of Likeable Media, a social media marketing firm. "My hope is that people will learn, and I wish I could say that they are," he says. "But if anything, we're seeing more and more of this foolishness. I don't see it going away."
That's because the problem is not the technology, says Steve Rubel, chief content strategist for Edelman public relations. It's us.
"The technology just magnifies what's already there. It's an accelerant. Social media hasn't dramatically altered human behavior, it just makes it more apparent. If you incriminate yourself, it's more discoverable, more distributable and more embarrassing."
Social media are an indispensable megaphone for the famous -- if they use it responsibly -- from newly installed Pope Francis to President Obama to Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn, who used Facebook this week to announce they were in a relationship -- and to ask for privacy. For the rest of us, it's a convenient way to stay in touch.
But no matter how many people learn their lesson about online safety -- personally or vicariously -- so many new users pour onto the Internet each month that public education always lags behind practice.
Twitter, for instance, now counts more than 400 million tweets a day, compared with about 340 million a day a year ago; 32 million at the beginning of 2010; and 2 million a year before that.
And these users are disproportionately young -- in many cases more adept technologically than socially, especially outside an immediate circle of peers. Those most fluent in the new social technology are often least aware of its potential dangers.
Of course, every new technology (Facebook is two years older than Twitter, the photo sharing service Instagram four years younger) takes us time to master.
Early telephone users had to learn how begin the conversation -- the use of "Hello!" has been attributed to Edison himself -- and how to end it. (At first, some people simply hung up when the conversation lagged.)
It all helps explain the steady stream of new social media horror stories -- what folklorists call "cautionary tales" -- that are supposed to be self-limiting.
Since the perilous cave days, humans have used such stories to teach survival lessons. Classically, there's a threat (say, fire); a taboo (children shouldn't play with matches); a violation (child plays with matches); and a result, often grisly (child sets himself on fire).
With social media, the problem is clear: Good, old-fashioned stupidity has become publishable, distributable, retweetable, immortal. Kerpen frames the
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