Join in and embrace social media, but for your own good respect the ground rules
The cyberworld is pitted with as many booby traps as the real world. Despite the health warning, people ought to feel the fear and go there anyway, because social media is here to stay.
Anxieties crop up even before people go online. To tweet or not to tweet, to blog or not to blog, to post on Facebook or not to post, to use your own details or hide behind an avatar. And once in cyber terrain, the difference between quicksand and terra firma can be hard to distinguish.
With the employment market showing signs of recovery, jobseekers hoping to impress may find an online presence to be a coup. But it can also be the coup de grace. Ill-considered tweets can 'out' potential employees as anything from indiscreet to sexist, homophobic or racist. On Facebook, people continue to post compromising photographs of themselves without realising its implications as a public forum.
On the other hand, employers often expect staff to have an online presence, using social media to promote the company either informally or formally. Savvy businesses want to compete in the holy grail of the digital landscape. However, some companies now issue social media guidelines to staff because even views from personal accounts can reflect on the employer.
A survey of SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and business owners yesterday showed that almost half of Irish employers now check social media before hiring. The poll by Bord Gais/Mindshare also found that one in five small businesses have cautioned or sacked staff over social media behaviour in the past year. So, social media needs a handle-with-care label.
That counsel applied to last week's election candidates, incidentally. Several voters told me they looked for information on the new faces in the local elections via their online presence. Stag weekend photographs probably weren't their best selling point.
But the voice should sound human not corporate – anybody taking a canter through Barack Obama's tedious Twitter feed can see that tweeting by committee is not a scintillating template.
So, ignoring the cyberworld is a blinkered position, but negotiating it can be hazardous. The problems are Hydra-headed, but one arises through a fundamental misunderstanding. Some users imagine they're gossiping with friends on social media. People, this is no coffee shop: it's like standing on O'Connell Street with a megaphone, and a lawyer right behind you.
British tweeters discovered that to their cost last year. When an unnamed senior "Conservative politician" was said to be a paedophile on BBC2's 'Newsnight' a Twitter storm followed, leading to tweeters naming Lord McAlphine, a Thatcher grandee. The allegations were unfounded and he took a landmark case. Tweeters with fewer than 500 followers who had repeated the libel were allowed to make a £25 donation to charity, but the Tory peer's lawyers indicated that he would pursue 20 high-profile tweeters.
A court judgment found a tweet by Sally Bercow, wife of the House of Commons speaker, to be libellous – serving both as warning to social media users, and guidance: tweets are subject to the law of libel.
Another issue with social media is that it's oh so hackable. A mischievous McDonald's fan had fun tweeting on the official Burger King account, with an 'announcement' about it being sold to its rival. The bogus tweet was spotted, but it generated traffic about the need for secure passwords, including the light-hearted warning that 'whopper123' didn't cut the mustard.
Twitter is now a news source. It came into its own during the recent elections, when news organisations updated results on their websites in real time. Any time I wanted to check the progress of a count, I logged on rather than turn to TV or radio.
While the Twitter feeds of mainstream news providers have the advantage of credibility, spurious tweets from their accounts can cause havoc.
Last year, Associated Press was hacked and a tweet sent out that President Obama had been injured in a White House bombing. The Stock Market dived, with tens of billions of dollars temporarily wiped off it.
That episode can be filed under malicious hacking, compared with the high jinks of the Burger King joker. Closer to home, the 2011 presidential election was gripped by scandal when Pat Kenny read out a fake tweet during a debate which he believed was genuine.
Clearly, Twitter is a weapon. But it is also a tool. It can be useful in citizen journalism, both for sharing words and images, with videos taken on mobile phones uploaded. It allows businesses to develop a customer base.
It makes people accessible: users can message their celebrity crushes. And information can be passed freely. Too freely, for some people's liking.
A Twitter user's account was suspended for several weeks after he posted Enda Kenny's mobile number on a social networking site, encouraging followers to ring him. Someone tapped in the number, Enda answered it, and a brief chat followed. Democracy in action, no doubt, but possibly a shade too much democracy for the Taoiseach's liking.
However, as a tool, there is no denying that social media delivers power to consumers, allowing reviews to be checked on everything from hotels to suntan lotions.
To those with social media angst, the best advice is to join the party – but as with any gathering, social or otherwise, some common sense needs to be applied.