Is it time we all calmed down about social media?

Looking at the UK’s national media today, one could be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t much for the government to be worrying about besides Web 2.0.

The Guardian reports on draft plans from education watchdog Ofsted recommending that primary school children be taught the ins and outs of websites such as Twitter and Wikipedia.

A new proposed curriculum would ensure that children would “leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information and forms of communication.”

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Facebook is to become the new front in the War On Terror. The Home Office has reportedly indicated that it may seek to extend its powers of communications interception to include social networks.  

“The communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we collect communications data needs to change, so that law enforcement agencies can maintain their ability to tackle terrorism and gather evidence," said a Home Office spokesperson.

What is really going on here?

Certainly, social networks, wikis, blogs and other Web 2.0 phenomena are driving genuine change in the way our society interacts, collaborates, and perhaps most importantly, makes decisions, especially here in the UK.

That being the case, of course both educational and security policy should accommodate them.

But that does not justify the unthinking elevation of anything related to social-media to the top of the public agenda.

Some evidence of the near-rabid enthusiasm for Web 2.0 currently gripping public life landed in my inbox in the form of a press release announcing, disapprovingly, that ‘4 out of 5 top UK technology firms don't embrace Twitter’.

Although it has been around for three years, Twitter only really reached the critical mass of adoption to become a bona fide phenomenon in the UK towards the end of 2008. It appears that the time between the point when a social media service enters mainstream consciousness and when commentators begin to chastise the ‘laggards’ is now a matter of weeks.

“Twitter has been successfully used as a network building tool by businesses such as Mozilla and Sun Microsystems, so there is a template that British businesses can apply to make it work for them,” a spokesperson for the company behind the release said in a statement. Readers will note that one of those organisations does not make any money, while the other simply loses it with eye-watering ease.

There is every chance that Twitter, or some other microblogging service, could become a crucial medium for all public and private sector organisations. Justifiably, it has been described as a ‘social nervous system’, and has quickly become the place where new travels fastest.

But the attitude that any and all businesses must adopt as soon as possible is an unthinking position that is as likely to stifle the potential benefits of social media as it is to promote them. Like any other technology, companies must think about what they can get out of it, how it effects their business, and how exactly they can get it to work for them.

(For the record, Information Age is on Twitter. For a publisher, it's a no brainer)

There is another factor that may be driving this social media frenzy, which, quite remarkably, appears to have only intensified since the credit crunch. And that is the fact that media of all varieties appear to be willing give it infinite air time.

Any organisation seeking a little coverage need only give their ideas or services a Web 2.0 spin, and hey presto, national exposure awaits. Because with all else turning gloomy, social media is just the sort of frivolity we need.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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