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Social Media Literacy

(By Lenandlar Singh)  Last month an incident reported in the media sparked a necessary conversation on the need social media literacy. A young man was reportedly attacked and injured after he went in search of someone with whom he had developed a virtual relationship with on social media. It was a case of a Facebook “relationship” gone wrong. Moreover, it was a case of high risk and poor judgment. But, it was just one example of many similar stories told daily.

So what has this to do with Social Media and Social Media Literacy?

Social Media technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and Youtube, among many others, have empowered their users in ways unimaginable even ten years ago and have created a space for socialisation on a scale not possible before. We are no longer passive consumers of information but create on a very large scale most what is available on social media. Each time we post a status update on Facebook or Twitter, upload a picture on Instagram or Flickr, share a video on Youtube, or start a conversation on a message board, we add to the already large database of content on social media. On Social media, we come to think of ourselves as journalists, opinion makers, politicians, philosophers, psychologists, relationship creators; on social media we are a network of self-appointed expert on everything.

The ease with which we can access and use these tools encourages the advancement of this self-expert status.  These tools are universal and pervasive. We are always on. They facilitate our imaginations and our actions. We can do as we like, it seems. But can we really?  Or should we? The freedom to be and the urge to do as we like on social media should be guided by what is now commonly described as digital literacy.

Digital literacy is about our ability to effectively use digital technologies, including the Internet. The key idea here is the ‘effective use’ of these technologies. Effective usage includes; creating, locating, utilising, sharing, evaluating, curating, and so on. Social Media literacy is therefore our ability to effectively and responsibly use social media technologies.

Some important characteristics of social media tools support and sustain their widespread use.  Social Media affords a level of invisibility and anonymity that encourages participation. They are often very easy to use and in most cases are free of charge. The social media world could be described as a free-for-all space.

But now let us revisit the importance of social media literacy. Social Media use is very much about exerting social influence – whether it’s on a personal level, between and among individuals, friends and families, or about individuals and groups seeking to exert political or business influence over larger entities and organisations.

How do we manage our actions on social media to ensure that they do not harm us personally and professionally? And how do we ensure that we do not perpetuate harmful ideas and messages through our online social networks? Or, more positively, how do we effectively use social media for personal and professional development? And how can we exploit the benefits of our social networks? One of the first reminders to social media users is that anyone can post anything online, including fake profiles and impersonations, opinions and inaccurate information.

A most important social media literacy skill is ‘crap detection’ and is closely related to ‘what we believe’. It is important to apply critical thinking to evaluate what is credible and what is not. A sceptical attitude towards social media is critical to its effective use.

Be deliberate in your attitude towards knowing who you engage and about what, and the content you consume.

Be deliberate and thoughtful about what you produce and share on your social networks. This is perhaps the most essential social media literacy because it is personal and it is one that we have much control over.

We must remember that the content we contribute has a life that goes beyond the present and can be interpreted and used in unpredictable ways. A thought shared today on our Facebook or Twitter profiles does not go away, and in fact may show up years down the road when we least expect.

The same is generally true for all other content.

Further, an understanding of privacy is an important social media skill. There is little guarantee that what we share in private will remain private. My own advice is that you should strive to keep your private things off your social networks. We have little control over what happens to the content we contribute to social media and therefore the consequences of our actions in some ways.

Because social media is very much about networking, the ability to identify our networks and contribute effectively to their progress is critical in social media literacy. The evolution of online personal and professional social networks depends largely on thoughtful conversations.

Social media literacy is about our abilities to use social media effectively.

This literacy is important simply because what we do on our social media can immediately affect us personally and negatively and may also have an impact on us in the a distant future. Our actions can affect our entire social space positively but can also have negative consequences on our social networks and the world.

Tech Bits is a tech related column featured in Insight. Social Media Literacy was published in Insight, Volume 2, Edition 4 (2014)

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