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We All Need to be Aware of the Dark Side of Social Media

There is a dark side to social media that more people ought to be discussing — digital drama and unintended consequences for consumers, brands or business. And each brings new privacy considerations.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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We are just coming to realize the role social media plays in life and in business. The bright side of social media is widely noted. Many people, brands and organizations have benefited from social media as it connects people with one another and often with advertisers. But not all of it is good.

There is a dark side to social media that more people ought to be discussing — digital drama and unintended consequences for consumers, brands or business. And each brings new privacy considerations, challenges and opportunities for consumers and advertisers.

Awareness is the first part of addressing the dark side of social media. Then, we have to address problematic unintended consequences of social media use.

The unintended consequences of social media are foremost for consumers. The saddest incidents include suicides and murders broadcast via Facebook live. Social media was the platform for these tragedies, and social media created a new kind of audience of live behavior that can go viral quickly. There are social risks inherent with live social media, and our generation is in the midst of this unprecedented social experiment.

Digital drama is the occurrence of and reactions to negative online consumer behaviors such as cyberbullying, revenge pornography, trolling and related online happenings.
Digital drama can occur with other forms of technology, such as via texting, but social media is a ripe context and platform for it because of the audience, interactive nature, and now capacity to stream live.

Other unintended consequences of social media are for brands, businesses and organizations. Worked up consumers have taken to Pepsi, New Balance, Nordstrom and American Air’s social media pages in an anti-brand or outraged manner. The Age of Social Media gives power to consumers, who use social media for consumer activism.

Digital drama also is inherent when consumers portray a desired self rather than a more authentic self. This brings identity conflicts as well as upward self-comparisons to an unauthentic image.

Constant posting of expensive material possessions or lavish vacations can further bring negative feelings to other social media users such as envy or a fear of missing out. Over time, a discerning consequence is overuse, overconsumption, and social media obsessions or addictions. People can feel connected, even when they really are not.

A common thread in all of this is privacy. Since the birth of the Information Age, the sharing, collection and use of personal data have grown exponentially, with an ever-increasing amount collected from a number of new and evolving sources.

For marketers, the value of this data lies in the ability to better understand consumers’ wants, needs and behavioral histories, enabling a more focused understanding of audiences and segmentation.

What can social media companies and/or marketers do to address the dark side of social media use? Mobile technology, and the big data revolution it is helping to drive, has brought about a need for a new way of thinking as well as new methods of managing data in an ethical manner.

Rather than relying on legal guidelines for fair information practices and consumer data protection set by governmental regulators, it is important for the industry to put meaningful self-regulatory guidelines in place based on thorough understanding of future benefits and drawbacks, why they matter, and how they will impact consumers, the economy and society.

Continued and more promoted anti-cyberbullying educational resources, privacy settings and awareness campaigns from social media companies are also positive steps forward.

For marketers and industry practitioners, considerations of data collection contexts and information sensitivities must be understood and addressed ethically.

For example, identifying the changing conditions where consumers welcome ad personalization and data-driven messaging strategies requires ongoing, continual research as new technologies emerge, devices become more connected, and privacy perceptions evolve.

Such a research agenda would allow for the development of policy recommendations for industry to consider, before stringent government regulations potentially restrict these opportunities.

Doing so will not only protect their reputations and the value of their business models, but gain competitive advantage by distinguishing themselves as consumer advocates and innovators of new community standards that honor the aspects of personal privacy rights most important to mobile social media users.

Angeline Close Scheinbaum is an associate professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations at The University of Texas at Austin. Gary Wilcox is the John A. Beck Centennial Professor of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. Both are researchers in “The Dark Side of Social Media,” Routledge, forthcoming.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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