The consensual transfer of this personal information can be seen as a reciprocal obligation that forms on the mutual trust between a social network and its users. Social networks need users in order to exist and thus it is the users who create the value of social media as it come to be. Though the value of the exchange from the user to the social network is quite obvious, what are the users getting in return? Why do they feel the need to join and use social networks as much as they do? Before the ethical implications of these technological institutions are evaluated it is first necessary to understand the reciprocate relationship between the user and the social network. From there it will be possible to create a parallel between social networks, as virtual societies, and world’s societies. This will allow for a more comprehensive ethical analysis because it enables social networks to be evaluated with the same ethical standards as those applied the real world.
Before Facebook was the largest social network in the world, it illustrated a critically important understanding. Even at its beginnings, Facebook showed the unparalleled propensity of people to join an organization in the form of a social network, if the networks were implemented in the right way. Even after its forerunners, such as Friendster, have died off and been forgotten, the demand for the Facebook has grown and continues to grow exponentially in the years since it started and has spread to almost every corner of the globe, even in countries that are far less modernized than the United States. But what was it about Facebook that made it so much more attractive to users than other social networks created before it? There are many possible answers, all of which are quite complicated, because they implicate not only the technology and design of Facebook’s social networking platform but also the intricacies of human social interactions and how these interactions affect people’s emotional and psychological well-being. Understanding these factors will help determine the reasons why people choose to join Facebook, and other social networks of a similar structure, and will clarify the purposes and value of social networks that our society has effectively created through its mass utilization of them.
What can social networks offer to users that other social channels have failed to provide? Asking this question first may be the best place to begin in the exploration of why people have such a high willingness to join social networks. The first major feature that only social networks can produce is a centralized venue through which users can interact with anyone they know, or don’t know, who also is part of the network. These foundational relationships are formed and maintained both outside and inside of the network and thus create a sort of cycle of sociability. The cycle works in this way: users see their friends on a network and feel inclined to join so that they can be part of the group of their friends (who are often friends with each other) interacting on that network; upon joining that new user becomes part of the group and any of that user’s friends who are not on the network will then go through the same process. Through a series of interconnections between groups of people, this cycle inevitably leads to a gigantic network that's members may be separated by one to one million degrees of social interaction. Simultaneously, all users on the network begin to form new relationships virtually with other users who they do not know outside of the network or did not know outside of the network prior to making the connection. The second major feature of social networks is the distinct ways through which users can interact. They may write notes to one another, chat in real time both in text and video, tag friends in pictures and videos, watch entire interactions between others, participate in social groups based on similar interests, find out what their friends are currently doing, and much more as new features are added almost daily. Facebook was originally created for university social networks in an attempt to create a virtualized experience of college social life. The various ways through which users can interact with one another were built to simulate life at college in the best way possible that could be done through an online site. An additional caveat is that this is not a simulation; it is a virtualization of reality directed by real people, and thus can create an infinite amount of new and different content for the users and will reflect their real life.
However, though social networks are probably the best-designed virtualizations of social experience, there are many aspects of them that could be considered both positive and negative compared to normal social interactions. First and foremost, there is a level of deception that is inherent to any virtualized interaction; this is an important idea for users to consider during social interactions. Unless they are using video to chat with another person, it is essential for users to understand that any textual interactions with a social profile will have a decreased level of credibility. Though it is easy to assume that the person using the profile is the same person, who the profile is depicting, hacking into social networks and creating fake profiles is a common occurrence, even done by potential employers. Additionally, as is the case with any real-time textual communication, social interactions are subject to alteration by all participants. The lack of nonverbal cues and ability to delay conversational responses—because users do not have to respond to conversations in as short a time—can greatly influence the authenticity of interactions. The development of online chat in some cases has led to trends of social isolation rather than increased interaction, because some users prefer virtualized socialization to that of real life; perhaps because they have the ability to create a completely new identity.
The other somewhat ambiguous aspect of social networks is that, even in video or audio conversation, all social interactions within them are communicated through data. Data, unlike sound, has a virtually limitless lifespan, thus social interactions made online will be preserved. This can be socially beneficial, because users can see their friend’s interactions and include themselves in the conversation, but it also has many negative effects if the preserved content is something that reflects badly on the user. In short, the effects of the content will be reflective of its quality--whether it’s positive or negative. This permanency raises many privacy concerns over the accessibility of this stored data and what purposes it may be used for.
From the preceding discussion comparing virtual and conventional social communication, it is justifiable to make the following conclusions. While social networks are useful for expansion of communities and provide perhaps the best form of virtualized communication that exists, they also have many ambiguous features, that is, they have the potential for both positive and negative implications. Lack of credibility is a constant concern and the users often overlook the permanency of their social interactions. It is important to consider these conclusions when analyzing the ethics of social networks as a new kind of society.
This concludes Part I of "Evaluating Social Media Ethics," Part II addresses the question of whether or not social profiles are representative of people's identities.