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Japan: “The Light and Darkness of Social Media”

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

It's human nature for rumors to run rampant in a high pressure situation, and social meda tools can be a double-edged sword in expediting this situation. Yasuhisa Hasegawa gives an analysis in his blog post “The Light and Darkness of Social Media” (ソーシャルメディアがもつ光と闇), drawing parallels between social media usage and consumption of mass media.

Hasegawa is a widely respected Web designer, developer, and consultant in Tokyo. He tweets in Japanese at @yhassy.

The following post was translated in its entirety under the terms of CC BY-NC-SA 2.1.

Social media played a great role during the revolution in Egypt at the beginning of this year. Now more than ever, people are calling to leverage social media for public/social activities.

However, the praise for the true power and utility of social media in the case of Egypt started me thinking, “The next time there is some kind of sweeping social change, we’ll probably start seeing the dark side of social media, too”. Maybe this is because I like to play devil’s advocate, but still, that fact withstanding…

Social media helped me in a couple of ways during the Great Tohoku-Kanto Earthquake. While cell phone services were completely shut down, social media acted as the information lifeline. It was the only way to communicate with friends and family.

This was a luxury I had because I wasn’t in an afflicted area, but it’s probably safe to say that most people were not in a situation where they had absolutely no information at all.

Throughout the disaster, I experienced the “light” of social media but at the same time, I saw “darkness” as well. This might have also happened in Egypt but it has risen to the surface now that I’ve experienced it in the Japanese language.

Many people still have not realized the actual social capability of social media. The advent of the Web in our lives brought forth an enormous amount of information. At the same time, it gave us the capability to broadcast information, almost as easily as we can attain it. There is no need to write anymore. All one needs to do is press a button, and many people will receive the information.

Let us ask ourselves, are we diffusing information before fully digesting its meaning? Do we experience a mental block that makes us forget to check the facts when we see the words “Pls RT? Are we mindlessly taking part in strange festival-like fervor on social media, whether or not we actually agree with the opinions?

Having sociability means taking actions with the responsibility of being on common ground. It is important to have good sociability especially when using social media; where it could be ambiguous whether you are either receiver or messenger.

All in all, many “social media users” are still similar to those who establish their values by consuming the information on TV and magazines. People are still passive. We have the capability of sharing information, but perhaps at the same time, underestimate its power.

Social media is one of the platforms that allows people to connect to one another. The strong connection between the users can work to amplify emotions. These emotions can at times be positive but can also be negative, inducing fear and hatred. The degree of this amplification can become severe for users that passively accept information to then pass it on to others, forgoing any process of factual scrutiny.

I’m not trying to say that social media should not be used by those with low information literacy. One can only learn to use social media to its full extent by becoming exposed to many kinds of information, by learning how the information is used by others, and by trying things out. As mentioned above, social media provides countless sources of light; we can’t afford not to use it.

However, we should be conscious about the act of sending out information to others, and remind ourselves to be critical about the information we receive. It is important to have this kind of attitude when using social media, especially in a time like this when information can be shared with a single click. I consider this to be the first step to prevent social media from entering into darkness.

Social Media Wordle by Flickr user Nancy White (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Addendum

This article was first posted to a Facebook group. Some users have already pointed out mistakes and have commented on it. One comment in particular referred to Movatwi, the Internet application that allows non-smartphone users to use Twitter on their cell phones. In the few days after the earthquake, Movatwi made several improvements, including adding the official retweet function as a default and making browsing quicker. These adjustments at the level of the system and design are very welcome, since for instance Japanese users widely share rules about official and unofficial retweeting that are not intuitive. Human behavior doesn’t change easily, but services can compensate for that.

Services like Twitter and Facebook allow information to be shared with a click. I sometimes wonder if this minimalist approach is a good thing or not. Ease of use attracts users, but at the same time it also cancels out the sense of responsibility that normally comes coupled with the act of sending out information. These kind of platforms are destined to experience an increase in noise. What’s called into question is the need for a change in the way information is received by each user.

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Many thanks to Aki Takamoto and Naoki Matsuyama for their help in translating this article.

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

  • robe

    Please Help Japan

    Hello Lawrence,
    I’m Hiroki, big Bruce Springsteen fan for the past 15 years.
    I’m temporarily living in South Korea now. So I am safe.
    But some of the destroyed nuclear power plants are relatively close to my hometown.
    They are still struggling to cool them down. So that’s the biggest concern now.

    As you can imagine, I have many songs that I can relate to this horrible disaster.
    My City of Ruins, The Rising (I was a police officer in Japan), You’re missing, Roulette…
    This Hard Land is one of them. Especially that last verse now has a complete new meaning to me.
    Lots of evacuated people literally sleep in the feelds, hungry, just trying to be alive, making a plan to survive everyday…

    Being a big Springsteen fan in Japan or in South Korea makes me feel a little bit ‘lonely’ because it’s not so easy to find another fan like me around here.
    I have many books on Bruce Springsteen and his music. Your ‘For You’ and ‘The Light in Darkness’ are both my favorites ’cause they make me feel less lonely. It’s good to Know there are many fans out there who have the same passion for his music. It’s good to know I’m not alone.
    So thanks for your hard work. I really appreciate it.
    And thanks for caring for us. Please prey(sic) for us.

    Hope you keep doing what you’ve been doing.

    Best regards
    Hiroki Ono

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