Social media is a double-edged sword. It can cut both ways, by making you big or destroying your entire future.
Many users think it is fun, but every word in your social media platform is like a building block towards your behavioural patterns.
Employers are finding a rich source of data with which to construct your personality profile and predict your likely behaviour, and they are doing this so stealthily that you may never know that someone is snooping into your space.
To illustrate the dangers of social media, here are two hypothetical cases.
The first is a 22-year-old urbanite living in Nairobi. Like his millennial friends, he owns the latest smartphone, has accounts with multiple social media sites, access to high speed broadband both at home and in college, subscribes to a range of entertainment programmes, spends more than four hours online each day, and does much of his shopping online.
He rarely cooks at his rented home, where pizza delivery bikers know him as Chief.
He regularly posts adult pictures on some of his social media account and shares these pictures widely. On his Twitter account, he has opinions on virtually everything, even in areas he has limited knowledge about.
The second person is a twenty five-year-old woman living in rural Nakuru County. Her home borders Lake Nakuru National Park, and the telecommunication network in her home area is often interrupted by park communication systems.
As such, she rarely goes online save for checking on her e-mails - perhaps once a day when connectivity is clear. She has a Facebook account from which she shares animal pictures with friends outside the country.
Her Facebook account is like a record book for people around documenting issues of human-wildlife conflict.
Although she is not an activist, she has had invitations to attend international conferences on nature. These two cases have online presence, but with different characterisations.
Whilst the young man receives unsolicited adult pictures, the young lady is receiving unsolicited fully paid invitations to share her knowledge in far-flung areas. None of the two individuals was ever introduced to their unsolicited sites.
They built their own profiles by their activities online and in social media. Similarly, some employers are using social media sites to make predictions about prospective employees.
In this case, the young man is more than likely to use company resources for his own pleasures and as such he would not be the kind of employee they want. Characterisation on social media comes naturally.
Over the past year, I have been added to different WhatsApp groups without my consent. Instead of exiting the groups, I decided to gather the content and organised it into themes. Three distinct groups have emerged.
First is a small percentage (less than 10 per cent) of participants, who focus their attention on issues of significant importance.
If for example, the group is created to mobilise resources for a good cause like raising money for a needy sick person. They stick to issues that are beneficial to the patient.
The second group, perhaps 30 per cent of participants, is the one that talks about things, places and events. Even when a group is created for a good cause, this category of people interrupt to suggest some irrelevant things like “please try to eat at Omagina Restaurant. Their food is great!”
The third and largest of the group membership talks about people. “How much money did Ndemo contribute?” they ask. “Imagine, Bwana – only that!”
The latest trend about people is memes (a humorous image, video or piece of text that is copied and given certain attributes and slight variations and spread rapidly by internet users). A good example is the Githeri Man.
Often, there will be someone who tries to herd the group back to its objective, but the third type of membership will often fiercely defend its position. In so doing, they restate their right to express themselves. There are rejoinders like “let the people vent”, but what they forget is the fact that they completely shut out the first category, who often mean well in resolving the issue at hand.
This problem isn’t characteristic of any single class in society. While I was contemplating this piece, I had a chat with some of my close friends.
One of them narrated how a group they had created to discuss professional issues degenerated into a political duel between tribes.
These people were classmates and have grown as colleagues but somehow they fell into a pattern similar to that I have explained above. They allowed themselves to vent about personalities and issues outside of the objectives that led to the group formation.
Fortunately, they thought about their actions as senior members of society and wondered what example they were setting to those who hold them in high esteem. However, restoration will be long and difficult, especially when friends characterise you as a problem person.
In some cases, such people are isolated from the more progressive group members.
What most opinionated social media users don’t know is how much they infuriate their group members. Many have annoying habits on social media especially when they bombard group members with videos, audio messages and jokes at odd times of the day or night.
Woe unto you if you belong to different groups of the same characters, because they will post the same thing on all of them, and to your individual account as well!
They do not consider that they are filling up your phone with useless content! Sometimes one wonders when they ever get to work – or sleep!
Unknown to those who misuse social media is the fact that they are creating a permanent record about their own behaviour and in the not-too-distant future, even in marriage, it may become necessary to check the behaviour pattern of your prospective spouse.
Parents too may check on their in-laws to be if they are the opinionated type and find cause to persuade their sibling from making a lifetime mistake. Some things you say early in your life may come to haunt you later in life.
Others think that by using anonymous accounts they are safe. They aren’t. Network security is a myth. It will take a good hacker a few minutes to reveal the identity of anonymous accounts.
While it was possible to hide your identity in the past during the era of a technology called Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4), when one address was used to serve multiple end user devices, the transition to IPv6 with a single identifier for each device means that anonymity is a figment of one’s imagination.
In other parts of the world, they are coming up with social media etiquette.
Forbesmagazine, for example has come up with a 12-step checklist before you send your message. My own policy is that anything in my social media site is something I can repeat anywhere in public, and if not, then it isn’t good to be associated with me.
Others have a single question and that is: will this content offend anyone? If yes, then it may not be a good idea to send it.
Sadly, some people write purposefully to offend and that is the kind of content that comes to haunt them later.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito