Debate: social media – friend or foe?

This week, The Student and The Intern went to a digital technology workshop run by Crossover Labs in London, where an interesting discussion was had about the impact of digital technology on society. In Wannabe Hacks’ first debate post, the two go head-to-head about the pros and cons of social media:

Ben Whitelaw

AGAINST: The Student

The problem of social media, from my point of view, has been neatly summed up in the past hour. A whole 60 minutes ago I sat down to write this blog post, only to satisfy my technological nervous tick by checking Twitter. This led to me read several articles linked by people on my feed, visit numerous websites and to generally tweet a bit myself. All the while, said blog post remains unwritten.

Social media (I can only claim to properly use Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, WordPress and occasionally StumbleUpon on a regular basis) is the most productive way of being unproductive. Even when you think you’re doing something useful, chances are you are, in fact, not doing something else more pressing. I do it myself all the time.

Granted, social media is great because you can tap into a pool of knowledge and people that you would otherwise be unable to access – such is why I use each of the above every day. But it’s not necessarily time well spent because, for many people, there is no end product or set goal. Essentially it’s a never ending task.

Social Media

Social media, in this sense, is about the potential. Tweeting with the right hash tags or to the right people might get you a larger audience. Posting a link up on Facebook may trigger people to visit your site. Commenting on other people’s blogs could increase engagement. Social media, in this context, is defined by possibility, which is why everyone loves it. But chances are very few people will hit the link you’ve provided, let alone read the article once you’ve got there. And, in this sense, social media pervades a false sense of productivity.

The core problem is that much of social media involves talking and not listening. I would wager that there are many more tweets written than tweets replied to. That’s because social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, despite professing to foster engagement, are actually just a sea of single voices wanting to be heard. It’s often very hard to separate what is useful from what is white noise. And it’s very easy to get lost in the white noise yourself. At that point, all social media is doing is informing others what you are reading, doing, feeling without engaging in conversation. That unfortunately can only lead to an acceptable level of voyeurism.

This is not a preach, for I am guilty of all charges laid out above. However, I try and realise that engaging in this virtual communication does have it’s pitfalls, notably a lesser degree of productivity and an acceptable level of voyeurism. Without a well-thought out approach to social media, it does as much harm as it does good.

Nick Edited

FOR: The Intern

The good the great and the even better:

I cannot deny The Student’s final thought, that Without a well-thought out approach to social media, it does as much harm as it does good and yet I am in love.

My favourite aspect is how it has leveled many, many playing fields – the means of production are finally in the hands of the worker.  On a serious note, blogging and the web in general has democratised publishing in a way not seen since the printing press and networks like Twitter have meant anyone can approach each other. From the recent graduate through to the experienced professional – we are all equal on Twitter (verified accounts aside) – we can all ask for help from and connect with people we simply would have not had access to in the past.

Further to that, there is a new level of engagement with friends – it is very passive and some would argue no replacement for picking up the phone or meeting in the pub. I agree, these networks are not replacements, merely augmentations. We share in a way we never have before – links, ideas, jokes and media – these networks allow us to engage on these levels; as well as in the pub or park – we can do both.

Social media (and in this I am including the wide range of services and networks listed on the Wikipedia entry) is a neutral distribution platform, by this I mean that no one has an artificial monopoly. Of course some individuals are considered more valuable to engage with, but this tends to be on the strength of their contribution to the networks they participate in rather than their marketing budget or industry connections.

The Student argues that social media is distracting when you are attempting to be productive and I agree – but I think this is a short term view and we need to take the long term into account. In the long term our increased access to knowledge, discussion and new theories improves our understanding of issues and our ability to debate around these issues. We gain a greater holistic understanding of the subject areas we are interested in and get pointed in directions we never would have turned to on our own.

Social Networking

I also think it is important to remember that social media networks and websites are services, ones which we choose to access and as such can we can choose when not to. If you have a blog post or an article to write; turn them off. If you are going on holiday and don’t have internet access – nothing to worry about – it will all still be there when you get back and any particularly important posts or ideas are generally highlighted very well by the relevant communities.

The connections and conversations that social media allow us to have are a brilliant and timely progression of the types of interactions that took place within closed groups and industries in the past. They are an enhancement to our lives and as our filtering and evaluating skills become fine tuned these networks will be even better.


About Nick Petrie
Social Media & Campaigns Editor @TheTimes of London. Co-founder @Wannabehacks. Interested in communities, conversations, storytelling.

3 Responses to Debate: social media – friend or foe?

  1. Jessica Fuhl says:

    Did the Intern just quote Wikipedia?

    SOCIAL MEDIA: I think one thing that both of you are missing is that socail media is mostly about one thing – personal branding. People tweet, upload photos and post blogs beacuse they want people to see them in a certain desired way – witty, someone they want to be friends with, politically aware… In more cases than not the first thing a potential employer does is google an applicants apllying for a position.

    The one word I would use to describe social media is exhausting. I like facebook sometimes because it allows a certain type of banter, and one can have a sneaky peak at what so-and-so from primary school is doing with their life. However, other than that, if I want to contact friends I will phone, or better yet, divulge in human contact with them.

    I am attempting to get to grips with twitter because it seems there’s an overwhelming need to using it like a pro in order to get ahead if I want to pursue a career in journalism. Instead, however, using it makes me feel like I am not witty, no one would want to follow me, and I am not politically aware.

    That doesn’t seem social at all.

  2. The Student says:

    Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for commenting, sorry its taken a while for us to get back to you.

    Your take on social media is very interesting. We hadn’t really thought about social media as personal branding as such (maybe because we’ve got used to it/enveloped by it) but, you’re right, people use SM to convey their desired selves. After all, it’s relatively easy to look/sound good in 140 tweets.

    It would be interesting to hear where you are in your journalism career, do drop us an email at or tweet us (@wannabehacks)

  3. Pingback: So you want to be a journalist: In response to Martin King « Wannabe Hacks

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