The Dark Side of Social Networking

“Nearly 1 in every 5 minutes spent online is now spent on social networking sites”[1]. Across the globe, median internet user penetration of social networking sites is around 85% [1]. In almost no time, social networking has emerged as the world’s favourite online activity.

Besides the popularity among its members, online social networks have led to the emergence of thousands of new businesses and business models alike. Moreover, communities like Instagram (acquired for $1bn by facebook), Twitter ($10bn rumored bid value by Google), Groupon ($20bn implied IPO valuation), and, of course, the queen of all networks, facebook (debuted with $104bn market cap) have attracted interest from both, strategic and financial investors at sheer dizzy valuations. With their many amazing merits and high appraisals, it becomes easy to forget about the other side of online social networking – the dark side.

–          There is no doubt that social media has become a crucial communication tool that helps people find a voice. From American voter tweets along presidential debates to the uprising of the Arab Spring, the ease of use and width of reach provide power to the insignificant individual. Power to generate incitement and calls for action. Our digital society allows for every move, every thought, every action to be tweeted, pinned, posted or simply shared. At the same time, however, there is lack of (guaranteed) check and balances with regards to factual accuracy of data and statements. And accusation often equals guilt. Unfortunately, denials by those harmed are commonly discredited, if read at all. A common advice, therefore, is to ignore such vile abuses. Ironically, maintaining this dignified silence implies that the very essence to affiliate social networks, i.e. to communicate and interact, becomes void. Similarly, there is a danger in which serious coverage gets lost in the shuffle, leaving narratives to the special interest groups with potentially irresponsible motivations. Obviously, people should be expected to educate themselves but how often have you really gone through the effort of verifying the post on your friend’s facebook page?

–          Online social networks are like a giant marketplace for information. Believing in six degrees of separation, our online connections enable to gain even faster access to experts in nearly any field of interest and read about their opinions. Yet, “social media tends to lack subtlety” and relies on oversimplification – after all, how much depth can you incorporate in a 140 character tweet? Beyond spacial restrictions, given the overload of accessible information, simplification becomes essential as a hook for attention. Further, short attention span of internet users usually requires ideas to be stripped down to simple and condense messages. Unfortunately, with limited space and air time, regardless of how knowledgeable the author may be, complexities and finer nuances get cut out. Taking into account the multiplier effect, social media can become the fertile ground for unintended consequences. The infamous example of ‘KONY2012’ comes to mind; an official charity campaign video intended to inform about wrong doings of a certain Ugandan leader went viral to 80m viewers in a matter of weeks but turned out to be too simplistic, thereby occasionally inaccurate and reinforcing negative stereotypes about African politics.

–          Making new and connecting with existing friends has never been easier. Fantastic news, especially for people who move around a lot or meet new people every day. As “barriers to entry” are being reduced to a bare minimum, an obvious question is how well one can possible know the 1,663 friends in one’s facebook account and how valuable the connection really is? It appears, with the widespread adoption of online social communities, the word “friend” has evolved from a once one-dimensional noun to a transformative, rather ubiquitous verb. This has multiple implications, in particular from a sociological and psychological standpoint. As the amount of time spent on these sites to cultivate our network continuous to rise, time available for other activities decreases. It is not uncommon for this to be at the expense of in person interactions. Arguably, online socializing has the potential to weaken our ability to socialize in face-to-face settings. As mentioned before, communication on the web tends to be less deep and structured in shorter sentences; additionally, the ability to simultaneously communicate with multiple parties and/or browse the web, reduces the need for focused attention. Given the limited opportunities for meaningful or even truthful conversation (non-verbal clues are lost in writing), another danger arises – the ability to create a fake identity. Studies show that people with certain psychological deficiencies such as autism are particularly exposed to the identity trap. Unable to differentiate the nature of online friendships from tangible friends, e.g., they come to rely on these virtual connections with somewhat unrealistic expectations; a harsh awakening in situations of need can cause traumatic shocks to the person concerned. Another group of users particularly vulnerable to the dangers of online networks and public socialising are teenagers, with nine out of ten 13 to 17-years old having used some kind of social media in the US and only 27% never having used Twitter [2]. I will speak about privacy concerns and information sharing below.

–          Status updates and the like allow members to locate their friends, coordinate activities and share the latest news. It is impressive how small the world becomes once we share our plans; there always seem to be someone who has visited, is planning to do so, too, or knows someone who can help with the place I am targeting. The problem, however, is that the information I intend to convey to my family, friends and/or colleagues, is likely to also reach people with potentially less virtuous interests. In other words, social media privacy is questionable. With the help of APIs, someone could, for example, design a service that would aggregate updates from your location, with updates about what you are doing and updates on your purchases to create a very specific profile about yourself, essentially a snapshot of your life. Transparency is nice but also risky; as some blogger pointed out [3]”social networks have a vested interest in helping people find each other which means they want to make more information public so it’s searchable”. Consequently, many users tend to opt for public as opposed to private profile as their default setting. Everybody should determine for himself how far to push the boundaries of social interaction. Just don’t forget, unlike in person communication, every update, post or tweet becomes a mini-chapter of our public profile accessible to everyone, for all times.

–          By embracing a social media strategy, businesses can foster stronger relationships with, more engagement from and deeper insights into their customer base ideally leading to the creation of better products and services. While this sounds great for the company, befriending your favourite sport show or washing powder brand raises the question of the true intention behind certain “social networking activity”. Gartner [4] predicts that by the end of 2012, over 60% of Fortune 500 firms will “actively engage” customers through facebook, three times as many as last year. This is not surprising since, according to Bain & Co, customers who interact with companies via social media spend on average 20-40% more than others [5]. Interestingly, however, over half of all businesses ignore feedback provided over social media like Twitter or facebook (although for B2C, this number is lower) [6]. Fair enough, the prime reason for their ignorance is lack of appropriate monitoring processes. But still, true interest in customers would assume a certain level of investment, brining me back to the question about true intentions – really not masked marketing? Blurring the lines between socialization and business is, in my opinion, a slippery slope not the least for confidentiality reasons, especially for the less knowledgeable user. With print, TV, radio and corporate websites at their disposal, I would assume that companies have enough means to reach out to their customers outside their POS.

Online social networks provide many undeniable benefits to our society and open up opportunities, in business and leisure, never seen before. Given all the hidden dangers and side effect, though, we need to realize that “with social freedom comes social responsibility” [7]. As a multi-sided platform, responsibility spreads across parties: the host, the user and the third party service provider.



[1] “It’s a Social World”, comScore white paper Dec 2011

[2] “Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives”, Common Sense Media Research Study 2012


[4] “Predicts 2012: Marketers Must Adapt, Differentiate and Innovate in Social CRM, SaaS and IMM”, Gartner Nov 2011




Other sources



  1. Jennifer Ding

    Interesting post Nathalie. I agree there is a dark side to social networking, but I believe the problem exists throughout the entirety of the Internet. Social networking has simply exacerbated those issues by connecting more and more people. The speed at which information and ideas are shared between people (and corporations) has accelerated with the emergence of social networking. It is with this higher velocity and participation rate that more users become exposed to these dangers and pitfalls. Misinformation can happen outside of our standard social networking venues but once it ventures into one of them it can spread like wildfire.

    I also think a lot of these issues are growing pains. Some of these issues can be solved through education. As you mention the biggest at risk group is new users, particularly young teenagers. A simple click of the wrong button could end up sharing more information than you wanted or downloading a virus that compromises your information and your family’s. The Internet is a scary place and parents must spend ample time explaining all its dangers and how to avoid them.

  2. I think I'm one of the dwindling few without a Facebook profile. I used to have one, but I got rid of it a while ago. I couldn't end up finding a true use for it that superseded the privacy and distraction drawbacks.

    It's truly creepy the amount of information that's available on you to those who know how to look. Even those who don't really know how can find amazing things about you just by getting access to that profile. It is not unbelievable to imagine that not only your tastes and preferences are up for grabs, but also your location, your friends, and your family. With a little savvy someone could put together a pretty good timeline of when and where you've been for a good chunk of your life. How secure are some of those security questions now about the name of your first pet or where you were born?

    And then looking at the upside, how much to I really gain from being on Facebook? Do I become closer to the people I really want to be closer to? If there's someone in my life who I want to stay in contact with, is it not better to actually see them, email them or call them? It's almost this voyeuristic relationship where you spend more time seeing what others are doing rather than concentrating on what is it you want to be doing.

    I think there's a serious social harm that comes from these whereby people just cherry pick the most exciting and interesting parts of their lives to throw up on the web and create a self-image that isn't realistic or possible even in any true way. And then everyone else is constantly bombarded with live feed of this from, as you say, their "closest" 1663 friends.

    I think that Facebook and social media have some very understandable dangers regarding privacy and security concerns, but I think the unsung danger lurking in them is the perceived depth of relationship it creates. I think it makes people feel that they have these connections with people that go "deep" because they know everything that's happening in their life when in reality it's creating a system whereby interacting and relating to a "friend" is defined by simply thumbs-upping whatever picture you just saw that they posted.

  3. Nathalie, We had talked about this issue offline, but I think it's important to remember that the data that fb gathers on its users can be used for good. Imagine a convenient world where ads are relevant and you buy things that you truly desire?

    Matt, I would think about restarting your fb account because social presence is quickly becoming a currency in the offline world. For example, many companies are looking for key opinion leaders in social media to help them market their product. I worked on a product over the summer purely to identify those active on social media to help a company focus its marketing efforts. Thus, by not having a fb account, you could be missing out on additional revenues. Finally, we are heading towards a time where online presence shows a company that you exist and your credible. It's akin to a credit score. Imagine not being able to book on airbnb or worse, not able to interview because people / employers can't verify who are you.

    One of my friend was looking for developers over the summer. She only contacted those she could verify on fb and seems credible through their online profile.

  4. Stelios Elia

    Nathalie, I share all the concerns you raise – and privacy in particular!

    Not only is it designed for a reason to be extremely difficult (I would say impossible) to figure out exactly WHAT personal material you (or others) post is available WHERE and TO WHOM – Facebook has the ability to change the rules "mid-game', as they have done recently, to make it even more favorable from their point of view.

    So essentially, they have been using our data for quite a while now to crack the "chicken and egg" mobilisation problem of multi-sided platforms – and now that they got us hooked in, they are pushing amendments which would not go through 5 years ago.

    I don't know what the solution to this is – but I really do think Facebook is under a lot of pressure in the long term – because something bad will happen through the platform and data will be stolen/misused – which will put the business in a bad path.