Let's ask a timely question: How much should we worry about social media sharing? If we take recent commentary as a solid gauge, then the answer is we should be worrying quite a bit. But our proneness to such fear seriously exaggerates the issue, revealing more about our own anxieties than any truth about the effect of social media in our society.
Critics suggest we should probably be deeply concerned, even afraid: Dave Eggers' recent, much-discussed, The Circle, is a 500-page tome about a digital dystopia in which social media controls us all. Articles about the dangers of internet oversharing abound. And, according to Jonathan Franzen, who hates many things, our obsession with technology is making us shallow, and slowly but surely replacing love. The message seems clear: We are becoming obsessed with our online selves. We are sharing too much.
A recent New York Times article, "They Loved Your G.P.A. Then They Saw Your Tweets,"shows that this hand-wringing over social media is now being aimed at the demographic that is arguably most concerned with self-representation: high school seniors in the process of applying to college. The article cites the results of a 2013 Kaplan Test Prep Survey, which reports that 31% of 381 college admissions officers surveyed admitted to visiting an applicant's Facebook or other social networking page to learn more about them, the highest percentage since Kaplan began tracking the issue in 2008. Furthermore, 30% said they had found information that negatively affected an applicant's admissions prospects.
However, more revealing than the survey itself is how it has been reported: New York Times reporter Natasha Singer finds these results troubling, to say the least. In contrast, on October 13, Business Insider and SFGate cited the preliminary results of the same study, yet in a far different light, running the headlines "The Majority Of College Admissions Officers Do Not Check Applicants' Social Media Profiles," and "Few colleges check applicants' social media posts," respectively.
The discrepancy in these headlines most obviously demonstrates how media outlets can choose to spin the news, but it also hints at how discussions of social media can often take on an unnecessary paranoia. If we are not discussing the merits of social media, it seems, then we are almost always agonizing about its possible darker side. But is social media really causing us harm, or are we just overly concerned about it?
The answer seems to depend on who you ask. According to Singer, the problem with admissions officers checking applicants' social media accounts is a lack of transparency in whether or not these officers do it. While job applicants know to do a careful screening of their online presence during the job search, Singer insists that teenagers aren't necessarily aware of the impact of their digital presence. Given the "impulsiveness of typical teenagers," she says, "the idea that admissions officers would covertly nose around the social media posts of prospective students seems more chilling."
Yet, as Will Oremus at Slate points out, Singer seems to imbue the article with far more paranoia than it needs. "Of course Colleges are Reading Applicants' Facebook Posts," reads the headline. Though Oremus concedes that colleges could have more explicit policies on their internet research, he argues that seeing this practice as chilling "reveals a misunderstanding of social media on the part of the Times — and perhaps many of its adult readers — that I suspect most high schoolers today don't share." People's social media accounts, if not set to private, are public — and what is public is exactly that, public. There is also a decided difference between looking at someone's public Twitter feed and hacking into their emails or Snapchats; college admissions officers are not snooping on students, they are merely perusing what is already on display. Teens, he believes, are social media savvy enough to understand this.
And perhaps that's the most interesting, overlooked part of the story — what these high schoolers think. What both articles do little to mention is the second part of the survey: that 77% of 422 students surveyed were not too concerned about admissions officers looking them up on Google. Only 14% of students said they would be "Very concerned," while the rest said they would be "Somewhat concerned." What these results point to, and what Oremus suspects, is that the paranoia over social media may be more on the part of these older writers and researchers than their subjects — that there is a generational gap between those who are writing about social media, and those who are supposedly vulnerable to its effects. One could even argue that the worry is misplaced: perhaps it's not the sphere of social media itself that is troubling, but the rapidly changing ideas of what should or should not be public. We may now have a propensity for oversharing, but for some of us, it's not oversharing at all.
There are many reasons for us to discuss social media, and yes, to be wary of it too. Online platforms can be notorious places for sexual exploitation and less-than-civil disagreements. What you say or do matters, and social media posts are increasingly being used as evidence in court cases, especially in cases of online bullying. And it's true that we don't know what possibilities lie in the future — what, for instance, will become of all the statuses and selfies and Instagrams we post online.
For now, however, college seniors can take from these conflicting articles a lesson in merely focusing on the facts: that 31% is 31%, according to one survey of 381 college admissions officers. This is not such cause for alarm.