Social Media: Nector or Poison

Published December 20, 2011

By Tariq Thangalvadi

Here we are again, on a path that is not unfamiliar to the Boomers and Gen Xers. Change, which we have grown accustomed to, is inevitable. Every change is an opportunity that we can either adapt to or resist. Of course we ought to resist any change that prevents us from fulfilling our deen, individually or collectively, with every ounce of energy with which Allah has endowed us.  However, the use of social media, including web-based and mobile technologies, in my assessment, does not fall in that category. 

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are simply innovative communication tools bringing change no different than that we have had to grapple with in the past, such as going from letters to emails, from analog devices to cell phones, from print media to the electronic media. All these changes have greatly enhanced our ability to consume and share information.

Many users send or accept  friend requests  from friends of friends (of friends…), seeing their growing list of “friends” as a sign of their popularity.  But the less selective you are, the less meaningful is your list of “friends”

Being Informed and Careful

If we are informed and careful, social media tools benefit us. They enable us to connect — in ways that have been impossible in the past — with scholars who have dedicated their lives to learning about the deen of Allah SWT. Those who are seeking truth have a fount from which to quench their thirst for knowledge. Yet those who are not careful might find themselves in a disastrous “time sink”, an energy-sapping black hole that  provides unlimited “entertainment” with very little intrinsic or enduring value.

Social media enables individuals to find common ground with others, regardless of age, gender, or any other demographic. Individuals can come together based on shared interests while maintaining whatever degree of privacy they choose. It enables free sharing of ideas, knowledge, and wisdom among friends, and facilitates connecting with individuals close by or on the other side of the world.  It has opened up opportunities that have hitherto been unknown.

Organizations Benefit from Social Media

Both for-profit and non-profit organizations have greatly benefited from the effective use of social media. Blendtec’s CEO Tom Dickson created a video that went viral on YouTube (the famous “will it blend” series) and helped them increase company sales by over 700 percent. Dell used Twitter to create “Dell Outlet” and booked over $3 million in revenue in one year from Twitter postings. Fans of Cadbury Wispa (about 22,000) petitioned the company on Facebook to bring back the discontinued chocolate bar; 40 million bars were released and sold out in 18 weeks, a rate of four per second. 

Islamic Relief was able to raise $1 million dollars within four days for Haiti earthquake relief primarily by spreading awareness via Twitter and Facebook. Saffron Road, a halal food company, increased its sales by 300 percent this past Ramadan with a well-coordinated campaign that included Facebook and Twitter.

YouTube, in fact, is the largest repository of Islamic lectures in the world today!

Most Popular Social Media Sites Overview

In order to best use the available tools, we have to be familiar with them and what they offer. Following are some of the most commonly used social media tools:

YouTube: the best place for videos. You can find videos on just about anything, from weather to politics, product reviews to software training, sports snippets to movies, from incoherent rants to scholarly lectures. In fact, it is the largest repository of Islamic lectures in the world today. You too can participate, if you have something valuable, interesting, or novel to share. It takes less than two minutes to create an account and you can upload videos from a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone directly.

Twitter: the best tool to share and get bite-sized updates, instantly. Twitter has been defined as text messaging for the Internet, except you can send your text “to the world.”  Using “#” (hash) tags and “@” (at) references, you can chime into any topic or send a message to anyone with a Twitter account. For example, using “#halal” you can read all posts that mention that word or share a thought on the subject. You can include, for example,  “@yasirqadhi” on your post and that individual will get to see it and can reply, if he chooses. Companies increasingly use # tags to gather consumer response during product launches and offerings of discounts.  On Twitter you can either follow and/or be followed. For example, you can get all of ICNA related news in your feed by following @icna. Your friends who are following you will get to see the selected posts that you “retweet” (RT:) from @icna.

Facebook: the best tool for connecting with friends and family members, as a group or an individual. There are over 800 million users worldwide (as of September 2011) and you are most likely already using it yourself to one degree or another. Facebook has been known to rekindle relationships between long lost family members separated by some past event or circumstance or simply having lost touch due to geographic distance. Companies and special interest groups use Facebook (pages and groups feature) extensively to promote their products and/or causes. There are plenty of software companies who have developed extensions such as games, stock management tools, and other applications within Facebook.  As a side note, Facebook users contribute to roughly 80 percent of the traffic on YouTube.

LinkedIn: the best tool to develop and maintain your professional network. This is the first place that many recruiters and potential employers go to fill open positions and  to review prospective candidates’ profiles. Companies use LinkedIn to get the best possible talent by posting job opportunities and leveraging the connections of its existing employees.

There are plenty more social media tools, but the above-mentioned are the most popular.

Those who are not careful might find themselves in a disastrous “time sink”, an energy-sapping black hole that  provides unlimited “entertainment” with very little intrinsic or enduring value

You Control “It” or “It” Controls You

Social media, as mentioned above,  is sometimes referred to as “time sink.” There is enough valuable content as well as junk to keep a person occupied for a lifetime and then some.  There are many individuals who spend inordinate amounts of time on social networking sites. Some feel like they can’t go a day without Facebook. Therapists say they are seeing more and more clients who have gone beyond “social networking to social dysfunction.” The risk is the impulse that becomes habit , to dissociate from the real world and spend more and more time in the virtual world of social media. When it becomes compulsive and causes an individual to ignore their personal, religious, family, school, and/or work responsibilities, then it is time to step back and put some reasonable time boundaries in place.

Protecting Your Privacy

Personal information that is shared on social media sites no longer belongs to the individual. In general, the service providers such as Google, Facebook, or Twitter own that information which they resell to anyone willing to pay. Although various public watchdog groups have pressured these companies to do more to protect the Personally Identifiable Information (PII), they continue to sell the information, albeit as aggregated data (not personally identifiable statistical data representing some portion of the collected information; for example, the number of males residing in a particular state and of a particular age) . Currently there are no specific laws that govern these companies regarding collection, storage, and dissemination of PII that the user has voluntarily submitted. 

Miscreants and criminals for some time have been successfully exploiting the information on social media to commit identity theft and financial fraud. There has also been an alarming increase in activity aimed at individuals or even entire families, using information obtained from social media, that results in crimes and even, in some cases, homicide or suicide. Therefore it is most important to keep your personal information private. Know the facts and make sure to educate, guide and supervise your children in their use of social media just as you ensure their safety and well-being in any other setting or activity.

Basic Tips for the Safe Use of Social Media

1 – Do not divulge personal information: Phone number, address, date-of-birth, credit card information, bank details, social security number, or Tax ID should never be disclosed. A social media site may ask for some of this information, but not all of the fields you see on the screen are mandatory —  ones that are mandatory are indicated by an asterisk (*). If you need to provide date-of-birth to verify age, remember that this is not a legal record and you can put a month and day other than your real ones but with the correct year to satisfy this requirement. Make sure your children know that in most countries a minor who falsifies his/her age to represent themselves as adult is committing a crime.

2 – Turn on the privacy option: Most of these sites have a privacy filter or options by which you give permission or prohibit the site from sharing your information with others or using it themselves for marketing purposes.  A lot of these sites bury their privacy option a few layers deep so that most users overlook it,  as each user who disallows use of their information cuts into the site’s revenue potential.

It’s easy to have a false sense of security on these sites, especially Facebook, because those you trust surround you.  To activate the privacy option on Facebook, click on the triangle next to your name (top-right corner of the screen) and then click on “Privacy Settings.” Review each item carefully, including the fine print, and determine the best option for you. You should do the same for “Account Settings.” Review in the same way your privacy options on YouTube,  Twitter, LinkedIn, and any other tool that you may use.

3 – Be judicious about who you accept as a friend on a social network: It is not uncommon for identity thieves to create fake profiles in attempts to get information from you. Many users send or accept  friend requests  from friends of friends (of friends….), seeing their growing list of “friends” as a sign of their popularity.  More friends do not equal more hits on your posts.  And the less selective you are, the less meaningful is your list of “friends.” There is an option to “Unfriend” someone by hovering your mouse over their name or clicking it, then click on the “friend” checkmark and select “Unfriend.”

4 – Use caution about clicking on links in messages: When you receive links in messages from “friends,” be cautious in the same way you are when you find links in email messages. A link in a message might represent that you will be taken to a particular site, but will actually take you to some other site or it may give others access to your personal information (the underlying program on Facebook using API or by placing a tracking software in your browser). You can try hovering your mouse over the link to see if it shows you the real target address, or URL.

In conclusion, social media create opportunities that can be used for our benefit. It can also create trouble and misfortune if we are not careful. But it’s not something to be shunned; rather it is a tool to be used wisely and in moderation.  As with everything in life, we beseech Allah SWT to guide us on the right path for He alone has full knowledge.

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