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Social Media as Public Expectation: The New Public Utility

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"Balancing the demands of consumers, regulators, policymakers, and stakeholders is a daunting task… even under the best of circumstances. Add to this the ever increasing complexity of contemporary … issues and simply keeping up with the changing landscape can become a full time job." Sound familiar from the current debates between Facebook and users, or Google and users, or YouTube and users?

Counter to potential expectations, the previous quote did not come from any social media dispute, but from the front page of the Wisconsin Public Utility Institute. And there is a reason that I am using a public utility reference in a blog post about social media—expectations.

Expectations of social media users proliferate. Within the proliferation, there is a strong current that hints at a changing landscape between supply and demand in the Internet world. Not gone, but dwindling, are the days when users felt they had to sit back and quaintly accept what Internet Service Providers and social media companies provided for purchase and use. Have social media users become adherents of socialism in contrast to a capitalistic relationship? No. Users of social media products are not trying to take over the means of production. Rather, users want social media and the Internet to flourish and provide a finished service to be consumed; meaning, there is an alteration in how social media and the Internet function in society.

If you read bloggers', Facebook users', etc. commentary on the need for a Social Network Users' Bill of Rights you will notice that what ever form of social networking/social media is being referred to is irrelevant. What does matter is that social networking and social media sites are not simply used to frivolously pass time but have become a backbone, a crucial aspect, of how we conduct our social, political, and professional business in the global world. It is this critical nature of social media over the Internet that is causing users to become vocal.

Look at the definition of a 'public utility.' It is "[a] private business organization, subject to governmental regulation, that provides an essential commodity." Now consider that YouTube has become a place to make or break campaigns; LinkedIn is a portal for business survival; and places like Facebook and Twitter "help people stay connected" during "troubled times." Taken together, social networks are an essential commodity; one few people could survive without in a digital world. Try imagining staying up-to-date, relevant, and part of the business world without social networking; envision being part of the political conversation on world and local events without social networking; comprehend what would happen to your personal life without social networking. Additionally, with the ubiquity of cell phones, the accessibility to social networks is not limited to higher socioeconomic levels, making social networking classless in scope.

While social networking is not life crucial as electricity or water is, many people would be hard pressed to live a fulfilling and successful life without it. Social networking has become a utility for living in an interconnected world, and as such users are feeling that need and becoming vocal about it. The call for a users' bill of rights gives strength to the concept that we are moving into an era where social networks are part of the fabric holding society together. We need them to function as we do gas, water, and electricity.

The concept behind public utility is that while it is run by a money making corporation, there is an understanding that the needs of the public for access are important and must be looked out for. I am not suggesting that the government provide oversight over social media; however, since social media is integral to our modern lives coporations must be aware that users will start to voice their needs of access.

With that said, a summary of the basic rights demanded by users are the following:

  • Ownership of their own personal information, including:
  • Their own profile data
  • The list of people they are connected to
  • The activity stream of content they create;
  • Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others; and
  • Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites

No telephone utility like AT&T or Sprint would, today, imagine telling users that they must share public information with whomever the corporation demands, that the corporation can control future conversations if another service provider is chosen, or that anything communicated/written/created by a user is owned by the corporation. However, this does currently happen with social networks.

To read more about social networking, check out these books from your local library:

 

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