2012 seemed to mark a year in which more and more people started to become aware of really disturbing clauses in the terms of service of popular websites, from Instagram to Facebook. An issue which had been quietly bubbling along for some time entered the public eye with changes to terms of service and active revolts among users demanding fairer treatment of themselves and their data, whether it was people concerned about copyrights to their photographs or users angered by having personal information suddenly disclosed on public timelines. There were some interesting divides in terms of how people responded to these user revolts; a disturbingly large number of people seemed to take a ‘who cares’ or ‘if you don’t like it, don’t use it’ response when faced with angry users.
Just on general principle, these kinds of responses annoy me. There are lots of things I don’t like and I work to change them because I don’t like them and I think they are wrong. I don’t like the fact that voter suppression is an issue in the United States, for example. I’m not going to just stop voting, stop caring, or stop working to protect voters’ rights just because someone tells me to. And I don’t think anyone else should, either. Likewise, I’m not going to stop agitating for change on a more minor level; if I buy something and it doesn’t work, yes, I will take it back, or complain to the manufacturer, or take whatever steps need to be taken to remedy the situation.
With social media in particular, the ‘if you don’t like, don’t use it’ issue becomes particularly fraught. I think most users are aware at this point that they are the product, which is in and of itself disturbing, but they’ve also learned that their revolts can have an impact. Instagram, for example, notably rolled back some changes in the language of its terms of service last year in response to outrage from users who threatened to stop using it, including some major companies. The company learned that if its ‘products’ were unhappy, they wouldn’t have anything to offer its customers, the advertisers and investors who make it run.
But the thing about social media is that it’s increasingly becoming a job requirement for many people, both directly and indirectly. Many people work in industries where there is a heavy expectation of social media engagement and you can be at a profound disadvantage for not being on social networks. While they may not be openly required to be on social media, the cost for not being there is high; I, for example, am constantly reminded of the costs of not being on Facebook. My conscious decision not to use it is balanced by having a presence on other networks and counting on that to pick up the slack, but in the end, yes, I lose out by not being there, even though my personal concerns about privacy and safety currently outweigh that loss.
In other cases, people actually are required to be on social media for work, maintaining accounts and presences not just for themselves but for the companies they work for. For them, whether they like it or not, they have to use it, or risk being censured at work. If social media is part of the job description, even when the job doesn’t actually involve marketing or direct social media engagement on its face, not being on social media will result in constant pressure to get with it, and to represent the company there. Say you’re a journalist for a publication that wants to be new media savvy: you need to be on Twitter and Facebook at the very least, promoting your articles and those of colleagues, engaging with readers, and supporting the overall image of your parent company as one that is engaged with social media and ready to work directly with the public. If you don’t put yourself on social media, chances are that an intern will be delegated to create and maintain and account for you.
And while you can control what you put there, you can’t control the fact that the account is there to begin with and it has to be. And if you’re going to have an account, it needs high traffic, lots of followers, and lots of activity, which means you do need to be engaged, you do need to put material up there, you do need to work on representing yourself there. If you don’t, you’ll again encounter problems at work and you’ll lose out. So no, it’s not as simple as just not using social media if you don’t like the terms of service, you’re uncomfortable with the way a company is run, or you don’t like the way a site is structured; I for example don’t use Google+ because it’s inaccessible, and I’ve been repeatedly told that I need to be more active there, especially since I’m not on Facebook. I’m lucky in that ultimately, I’m my own boss, and I get to decide these things for myself even under pressure. Others? Not so much.
Social media is increasingly not optional for success in numerous industries, which means that it’s not just something people do as a hobby or for fun. It’s not something people can start and stop at will without any thought to external factors. And when people raise concerns about it, they can’t be casually dismissed as whining from people who just shouldn’t use it if they have a problem. Aside from the fact that the shut up and deal with it argument has never been an acceptable one, the stakes are just too high here for that argument to fly.