Some Thoughts on the Rapid Growth of Social Media

by Rachel Corbett.

If you have been reading the newspapers lately you will know that the world is a-twitter about Twitter and that Facebook long ago ceased to be the idle pursuit of university students. If you have teenage children you might have also noticed that they don’t use e-mail and in fact, they don’t even watch TV anymore. In fact, it has been suggested that e-mail may disappear entirely within five years!

We remarked upon some of these communication technology trends in our recent keynote address to the Royal Canadian Golf Association, and cautioned that sport organizations who ignore them do so at their peril. The power of social networking through the internet is enormous and an organization or company not paying attention will be left behind.

Here are a few examples of this potential … Last fall, after the US presidential election, there were a number of protests against the passage of Proposition 8 in California, a bill that rolled back civil rights for gays and lesbians in that state. The largest of these protests was in New York City and it was organized in less than 36 hours by a 17-year old using Facebook.

When a gunman opened fire on the campus of Virginia Tech University two years ago, it is reported that 40 percent of the student population knew of his presence through telephone text messages before law enforcement officials had even been notified.

And last fall, over 150,000 young people used Facebook to communicate to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty their displeasure with a proposed new law about graduated licensing, which resulted in the law being rescinded. The sword used to be mighty, then it was the pen and now it is the little mouse!

It is fair to say that the internet has grown so quickly that the law is having trouble keeping up. Whether you embrace these technologies or not, it is important to understand the privacy issues at play, and to know what the consequences of social networking can be.

Firstly, there is no privacy. Anyone in Ontario following the recent murder trial of the accused ‘MT’ in the case of the homicide of 14-year old Stefanie Rengel, will know that the prosecution entered into evidence more that 14,000 recovered MSN chat conversations between MT and her boyfriend, the co-accused. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner advises everyone on her website that sending an email is basically the same as sending a postcard for the whole world to see. And private e-mails or other communications that you send from a computer at work are the property of your employer, and are not private at all. Any IT professional or internet service provider can recover any communication you have sent, even if you have deleted it.

Facebook compounds all these privacy concerns through its social networking function. Facebook users have friends who have friends who have friends … with the end result that any individual is easily traceable, along with photos and comments and postings from others. These photos and comments may not be flattering. Also, everything posted on Facebook becomes the property of Facebook and even though you might delete something from your Facebook page, it is never really deleted.

It has been common practice for some time for employers to use Facebook as a recruitment tool. More recently, employers are using it as a tool to assist in employee dismissal. Employers can determine how much time a person is spending on Facebook (thus determining the amount of time the employee is stealing from the employer!). Facebook can reveal unsavoury characteristics of an employee which can lead to dismissal, even if the characteristics or behaviour are exhibited while away from the workplace. Employees have also been dismissed for compromising the confidentiality and proprietary nature of company information in Facebook postings.

All of this is quite sobering. We believe that social media such as texting, MSN messenger, Facebook, Twitter and Myspace have tremendous potential as communication and marketing tools, if used wisely, and may also have direct and valuable applications in sport. But caution is urged. As well, the newness of these technologies means that those of us well along in our sport careers have not had to worry about the legal downside of our personal lives being put on display for the entire world to see. Young people embarking on their professional life, however, may find their employment careers derailed, or taking a turn they did not expect.

Originally published: Centre for Sport and Law Newsletter (2009) Vol. 5(1)

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