Nothing To See Here, Jog On

The Internet is the ugliest reflection of mankind there is. So please Tweet this link, share it on Facebook, follow us on Instagram and Like us on Pinterest. Gava Fox gets social.

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Perhaps you’re one of the 1.7 billion Facebook users in the world, or one of over a billion people who access YouTube every month, the 310 million on Twitter or the 255 million on Linkedin, the go-to site for those who have just been sacked or want to boast about their latest promotion. Pinterest, favoured by mums and kitten lovers around the world, draws 250 million unique visitors a month, eclipsing Instagram, the choice of the cool kids, which has 100 million users turning their selfies and pictures of lunch into blurry attempts at art via overused filters.

The spread of social media is a phenomenon that nobody would have predicted less than two decades ago, but the proliferation of smartphones and access to the Internet means it is now inescapable. Think about it for a minute: Facebook has more users than the population of China — and Facebook is banned in China.

Before Facebook, if you wanted to stalk your ex you had to actually hide in the shadows outside her apartment. These days you can access her page and cry yourself to sleep looking at pictures of her carousing happily with her new beau. In the past you’d have to break into that unapproachable hot girl’s apartment and rifle through her underwear drawer if you wanted to check out her lingerie. Now you can see all the bikini shots and duck-face images you want — and sometimes more — by “virtually” following her on Instagram.

Social media platforms are now among the biggest corporations in the world —and also the most influential — but in the words of Spiderman creator Stan Lee, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Take Facebook, for example. It is well known the world’s most popular social media website was founded by Mark Zuckerberg while he was a geeky student at Harvard University in 2003. At first named “Facemash”, the utility drew on the pictures of fellow students he hacked from the university records department and then compared to farm animals, asking viewers to vote “which is hotter”.

Zuckerberg was nearly expelled for that, but he parlayed the site’s juvenile popularity into a more respectable vehicle for students to connect with each other, and the concept spread like a virus.

Perhaps chastened by the reaction of authorities to his first crude version, Zuckerberg in fairness has made social responsibility one of the cornerstones of the behemoth he has created, but there is no question that some people use Facebook and Twitter to harass, threaten, intimidate and shame those they have a grudge against — often with fatal consequences.

Scarcely a week goes by without a new story appearing in the media about lonely teens killing themselves because of negative comments, or trolling, they have received on social media.

In one case in Tawain last year, a young woman committed suicide with charcoal fumes live on Facebook because her boyfriend didn’t show up for her birthday. While some friends online pleaded with her not to do it, others accused her of being an attention whore — and none alerted the police.

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Her final status update read: “My room is filled with fumes. I just posted another picture. Even while I’m dying, I still want Facebook. Must be Facebook poison. Ha ha.”

It isn’t just self-harm that finds a new home on social media websites. Last year Australia appointed a Children’s eSafety Commissioner after cracking a paedophile ring that scoured Facebook, Instagram and Twitter looking for pictures of youngsters. While proud parents had posted the pictures in blissful innocence, the paedophiles downloaded the images and sorted them into categories such as “cute kids at the beach” and “teeny gymnasts”, sexualising them further with lurid comments.

And it’s not just kids who fall victim to sexual predators on social media. In a truly bizarre case in Britain last year, a 25-year-old woman was jailed for sexual assault after pretending to be a man to trick her female friend into having sex.

Gayle Newland befriended her victim by posing on Facebook as a man, then bound her chest and wore a woolly hat and swimming costume as a disguise, telling the woman “he” was embarrassed about “his” appearance. Having somehow also persuaded the victim to wear a mask whenever they met, the pair had sex nearly a dozen times before the dupe ripped off her blindfold during one encounter and discovered Newland wearing a prosthetic penis.

These are obviously extreme examples of how social media fails us, but in reality we let ourselves down online more frequently than we’d like to admit.

Start with validation. We all want to be liked and accepted, but rather than take the words of friends and family as encouragement, we now judge our worth by the number of likes and retweets we receive — even from complete strangers. Why did my profile picture update get only 42 likes? Why does everyone like that person’s status but not mine?

And then there’s the false sense of connection. Facebook tells me I have 1,351 “friends” but a quick look at the list and I can honestly say I wouldn’t recognise half of them if they bought me a beer, yet I still routinely “like” things they post and comment on their triumphs and failures. According to Cornell University’s Steven Strogatz, social media sites can make it more difficult for us to distinguish between the meaningful relationships we foster in the real world, and the numerous casual relationships formed through social media. By focusing so much of our time and energy on these less meaningful relationships, our most important connections weaken.

We also tend to forget that the Internet is forever. Social networking sites encourage people to be more public about their personal lives and because intimate details of our lives can be posted so easily, users are prone to bypass the filters they might normally employ when talking about themselves. While a photo of friends getting high at a party may seem harmless at the time, wait until a potential new employer starts doing background checks on you. Most sites do allow you to control who sees the things you’ve posted, but often those limits are difficult to control or don’t work as well as advertised.

There is also no doubt that while social media sites have proven a great boon to some businesses, decreased productivity as a result of employees idling their time on them can affect the bottom line. One study suggests American workers spent 10 percent of their office time on Facebook, while another said social media usage by staff cost British companies more than two billion pounds a year.

Finally there is the “regret post”. How many of us have sent out a Tweet or Facebook update or Instagram image and immediately regretted it? If you’re lucky, you might be able to delete it before anyone notices, but in an age where being glib and witty on the Internet is synonymous with popularity, it is often too late, as Justine Sacco discovered last year.

Flying home to South Africa from New York, where she worked as a high-powered director of communications for a giant internet company, Sacco accessed her Twitter account during a stopover in London and, after a few too many glasses of wine, wrote: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white”.

Within minutes friends had chastised her for making so crass a comment and the damage could have been averted if she had immediately deleted it, but she’d switched the phone off and by the time she landed in Cape Town some 11 hours later it had gone around the globe.

“You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now,” was the first of hundreds of text messages that flooded into her phone when she switched it on. Days later she was sacked.

Or take Lindsey Stone, a 32-year-old American who posed for a photograph while pretending to scream in front of a sign calling for “Silence and Respect” at a military cemetery. Stone had a running joke about posting pictures of her disobeying signs — pretending to smoke in front of “No Smoking” warnings, for example — but someone noticed that particular image and the backlash was catastrophic.

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Soon there was a wildly popular “Fire Lindsey Stone” Facebook page and news cameras outside her home. When she showed up to her job, at a program for mentally challenged adults, she was fired. “After they fire her, maybe she needs to sign up as a client,” read one of the thousands of Facebook messages denouncing her.

Many a politician has fallen on their social media sword such as the appropriately named Anthony Weiner, who was forced to resign from the U.S. Congress after Tweeting pictures of his, well, weiner, to women he had met on the Internet. His Twitter username? Carlos Danger.

You don’t have to be an idiot to misbehave on social media sites.

In a scientific study, researchers looked at the Facebook pages of nearly 1,000 surgeons registered with an association in the United States. While 73 percent showed no signs of unprofessional conduct, 14 percent had potentially unprofessional conduct and 12 percent highly unprofessional — including binge drinking, sexual impropriety and ethics violations visible to the general public.

Social media also terrifies governments. As mentioned, Facebook and Twitter are both banned in China, although the country does have more than 10 million registered users for the former. Homegrown versions of social media websites abound in China, but they are closely monitored by a vast cyber police force and certain themes are frequently banned.

Iran has also blocked Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, although paradoxically the country’s president has his own official accounts used to disseminate government information.

At one time or another Bangladesh, Pakistan, Syria, Mauritius and Vietnam have also banned various social media sites — usually during times of civic unrest — but in most cases users can usually bypass firewalls by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

There is no doubt that social media can be a force for good. Thieves have been identified, stolen property returned, missing pets found and long-lost relatives re-united as a result of Facebook or Twitter — although perhaps none so spectacularly as the case of Korean twins last year.

The identical sisters, separated at birth and adopted separately by families in France and the United States, were unaware of each other’s existence for 25 years. American Samantha Futerman had become an actress and Anais Bordier a fashion designer until a friend of Bordier’s insisted she look at a YouTube video of Futerman because they were so alike.

A few weeks later, they got in touch and discovered they were born on the same day in the same hospital in the same town in Korea, and a DNA test confirmed their relationship. Sadly, their birth mother wanted nothing to do with them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, teen-crush pop stars and athletes dominate social media. Katy Perry is the most popular person on Twitter with nearly 93 million followers, beating Justin Bieber (86 million) and Taylor Swift (80 million) to silver and bronze respectively. U.S. President Barrack Obama is the rare example of a non-celebrity on the list in fourth place with nearly 76 million followers.

Selena Gomez is the most followed individual on Instagram with over 95 million fans, followed by Taylor Swift (89 million) and Ariana Grande (82 million) while football star Ronaldo leads the Facebook stats with over 116 million fans, followed by singer Shakira and actor Vin Diesel.

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But do they reciprocate the love? Most certainly not.

Despite being followed by nearly 50 million people on Twitter, the ubiquitous professional celebrity Kim Kardashian returns the favour to just 120 of her closest friends.  In addition to her massive Twitter presence, Taylor Swift has nearly 90 million followers on Instagram, but follows just 85 people — presumably all ex-boyfriends so she can check on their reaction to her latest heartbreak hit when she dumps them.

A trawl through the above-mentioned celebrity pages — I did it so you don’t have to — reveals a stream of self-promotion and marketing opportunity. It is no secret that celebrities get paid to endorse products on their social media feeds — and the rewards can be lucrative — so a round of applause for Essena O’Neill, an 18-year old Australian fashion and beauty blogger and online celebrity who gathered more than half a million Instagram followers, who announced earlier this year she was quitting social media after realising the negative effect the hunt for likes and clicks had on her and her fans.

O’Neill deleted some 2,000 photos from her Instagram account “that served no real purpose other than self-promotion” and edited the captions to those remaining to reveal the reality behind them. One bikini photo which originally read “Things are getting pretty wild at my house,” now says “See how relatable my captions were — stomach sucked in, strategic pose, pushed up boobs. I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspirational. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention.”

O’Neill isn’t the first celebrity to quit social media in a blaze of glory. Miley Cyrus, Zayn from One Direction and Iggy Azalea and have all announced their departures from Twitter — the latter with the choice epithet “the Internet is the ugliest reflection of mankind there is”, but some thrive on the cut and thrust of interacting with their fans.

Piers Morgan, a British journalist and failed U.S. Talk show host famously embroils himself in Twitter wars — with football stars in particular — but usually finds himself on the losing end.

“Football has myriad positional terms that have evolved over decades. For instance,  Gary Lineker wasn’t a striker — he was a ‘goal-hanger’. ”

Lineker, a national treasure, responded: “Better to be a goal-hanger than a phone hacker”, a reference to Morgan’s alleged involvement in the scandal when he was editor of The Sun newspaper.

But the “king of the zing” has to be James Blunt, the ex-British army officer who forged an unlikely post military career as a middle-of-the-road pop singer with such journal hits as You’re Beautiful.

While women around the world went weak at the knees listening to the crooner, most red-blooded males wanted to give him a black eye — and many felt brave enough to take him on in the anonymous security of social media.

“James Blunt is still moaning” Tweeted one critic after Blunt released his latest record. “That’s not me, that’s your wife,” he responded.

“James Blunt has an annoying face and highly irritating voice,” said another hater. “And no mortgage,” he replied.

“Every time someone plays You’re Beautiful a kitten dies,” suggest another anti-fan. “And I earn another two quid,” he shot back.

Our attention spans have shrunk to the 140-character Tweet, our news is made up of “listicles” from social sites such as Buzzfeed and we are now more likely to like a complete stranger’s picture of his lunch than we are to share a well-researched piece of long-form journalism, but social media is with us to stay.

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