What is the risk of social media?… We are

What is the risk of social media?… We are

Interview with Alexander Pschera, a German communications consultant who has recently published a book on social media: 800 Millionen (Matthes & Seitz Berlin 2011).

Why do you think that Facebook’s 800 million users are an interesting book topic? In the last months, it seems to be going down in numbers as well as in the stock market...

The title of the book is a symbolic one. It mirrors the growing impact of social networks on society. This impact does not depend on the success of Facebook as a company or a platform: Facebook is only one possible channel. There are a lot of other relevant ones like Youtube, Google +, Twitter, and blogs.

It seems like social networks are multiplying the number of contacts and potential relationships... But how are they affecting the quality of the relationships that users have with their closest friends?

The impact of social networks lies in the new role they give to groups of people, to small social entities, and to their way of sharing thoughts and emotions. In social networks you are not communicating in a “1-to-1” style, but in a “many-to-many” style. Other friends can follow up with your interests, your thoughts, your emotions. This possibility is not taking something away from close relations, but is adding a new dimension to social communication.

Is Facebook just a machine made to obtain new information and marketing data about users through cyber links?

On the one hand, Facebook is a data-gathering machine, that can’t be denied. We have to be very careful with this dimension. On the other hand, our data is collected by a lot of other institutions and technologies too (telephone companies, carrier, Amazon books etc.), so this problem is not specific to Facebook.

What do you think about Facebook selling advertising spaces or user data to businesses and companies?

I have no problem with advertising on social networks as long as it follows ethical rules. If social networks are selling user data to companies – which is done by a lot of other platforms and institutions too – the company has to make their rules transparent. That way, every user can decide how far he wants go by giving away authentic data about his personal life (pictures, birth date, addresses).

How are social media influencing the real lives of families, of fiancées, or of teenagers…? Do they have a particular impact in Germany?

Teenagers today no longer use telephones. They send short messages or meet on Facebook after school. The impact has shifted from one channel to another. This is a cultural shift. Does it implicate risks? Yes, because teenagers have to be educated to learn about the opportunities and risks posed by communicating in an open, social way. If a young person has strong values and is well rooted however, the opportunities offered by Facebook will prevail, and the risks can be managed.

How are social networks changing the perception of quality-time in relationships? What good things could we learn from this "techno-opportunity"? What are the bad consequences we should avoid?

The risk is that people simply “lose” too much time on social networks. They are “always on”, addicted to their pin board. They are becoming passive and so they can be more easily influenced. But this risk is associated with every new medium of communication which is not inculturated. We need to be educated about social media – especially parents, because they are being confronted with a completely new world. The good thing with social media is – and I can observe this with my children and their friends- that young people learn to communicate as social beings. They learn important things about “sharing”, about being responsible, about inclusion of others. This has nothing to do with in-depth relationships. We should be very careful to separate those two sides of human communication: the private aspect and the social aspect. Facebook is not a medium for real love, but it is a useful stage for social interaction.

What are the best ways to educate children and adults about developing intelligent ways of using social networks?

We need inculturation, an integration of social channels in the moral and ethical reality of our society. That hasn’t happened yet, not sufficiently. We need training and the institutionalization of social media. This should start with training the trainers, and means not only teaching the children, but also the parents. They should not only be educated about the technical dimension of social networks – how to install them, how to maintain them, how to avoid risks, how to hide away – but especially in the way social networks can contribute to our social behavior and, last but not least, to our apostolic life. That way social media can, as the Holy Father pointed out, contribute to a culture of friendship, dialogue and respect.

Do you think that the inappropriate use of the Internet is related to the "worldly behavior" that Benedict XVI suggested the need to correct in the Freiburg speech during his visit to Germany?

That is absolutely the case and a very good application of the Holy Father’s Freiburg-speech about the world of communications. What the Holy Father pointed out is that our communication should be more fair and honest. Benedict used the German word “Redlichkeit” to express this congruence between communicating and acting. He points out that our words should always be in line with our actions – that is the example that Jesus gives us. This is especially true for social media where the risk of “over-communication” is inherent.