Aren’t we reading too much into social media?

From sociologists to psychologists, governments, researchers, police, marketers, HR managers, marriage brokers, and psephologists--everyone seems to be turning to the social media for answers.
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor on

Shalini, my friend from college, recently narrated the story of her school friend who is now based in the United States. Shalini had reconnected with her on Facebook after nearly two decades. Her photographs and status updates painted a very rosy picture. But when Shalini met her recently, she found her friend's life to be anything but happy--a terrible marriage, huge debts and a sagging career.

We all tend to draw inferences about people when we read their status updates or view their photographs.

I do it all the time. One such inference is--people who are lonely often talk too much on Facebook. They will tell you what's cooking in their kitchen, what happened in office and what their kid did in school.

Another inference is about mental illnesses. Many people change their profile pictures almost every day. Some even threaten to unfriend you if you don't comment on their status updates or photographs. Yet others keep posting motivational messages through the day. Such people, to my mind, could be suffering from depression.

But then, these are just inferences or presumptions that could well be incorrect. For instance, I have a friend who updates his status at least three times a day, if not more. Each of his post is wittier than the other. He's one of the most successful people I know, with a lovely wife and two beautiful kids. And he's neither lonely nor depressed. I am sure you will find similar examples from your friend list.


That's why I get worried when I see people across the world taking the social media so seriously. A story published in The Guardian earlier this month talks about how researchers were able to accurately infer Facebook users' race, IQ, sexuality, substance use and political views using only their 'likes'.

The research into 58,000 Facebook users in the U.S. found that sensitive personal characteristics about people can be accurately inferred from information in the public domain.

The findings come shortly after Facebook announced a partnership with four of the world's biggest data brokers aimed at improving targeted advertising on the site. Through this partnership, Facebook can target ads to its users based on their online and offline activity, including their location and shopping habits.

While the study definitely reopens the debate about privacy in the digital era, I wonder how accurate this information is in the first place. Many of the pages I 'like' on Facebook are those created by my relatives and friends. It has little to do with my personality or my beliefs. And if someone is infering that my personality has a lot to do with the pages I like, then they are certainly making a mistake. Life is really not that simple.

In India too, the government and its agencies seem to be monitoring the social media for various clues. Earlier this week, the Mumbai police set up a social media laboratory to monitor social networks for public sentiment and moods, to detect (in advance) possible mass gatherings or protests.

Nitin Puri, my fellow ZDNet contributor, blogged about this earlier this week. The lab will follow active netizens on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and other social networks. A trained team of 20 police officers will work around the clock to keep an eye on issues being publicly discussed and track matters relating to public order.  

Should social media be taken so seriously?

After all, this is the tax payer's money that is being used to snoop around social media. Can't the police gather such information through other means? Throughout history, there have been protests, revolts, riots and revolutions. And there was no social media to help the police. What is so different in 2013? Can the police really prevent a mass uprising if it was being planned on Twitter? Most importantly, in a democracy, can the state restrict citizens' right to protest?

Marketers too take the social media very seriously. These days, the best forum to air a consumer grievance is Twitter. It's pointless talking to customer service representatives on the helpline phone numbers. Talk about how the company has been harassing you and the company will come begging for forgiveness. Reputations are built on the social media.

But isn't that much too simplistic? In a city like Delhi, most consumer durable companies have outsourced customer service and annual maintenance contracts to a third party vendor. Since most vendors face the same kind of challenges such as escalating costs, high attrition rate and wafer-thin margins, their service standards are mostly at par with those of their competitors. There is really no differentiator.

The only differentiator then is the social media and how you tackle it.

Then again, if you talk about consumer durables, how can social media be the differentiator? It's a fallacy. Quality and prompt after sales service should be the real differentiators.

In my view, companies, governments, researchers, psychologists and others need to focus more on their core activities, rather than give undue importance to the social media. Ultimately, it's good governance or good products and service that will give you an edge over your competitors, your social media strategy notwithstanding.

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