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Explosion of electronic cheer

this New Years Eve

Facing the music

December 31, 2010
TwitterIllustration: Simon Bosch

Our love of social media means more people than ever will be connected to Twitter and Facebook as the new year rolls in.

They’re just three little words. But uttered at the right time, they can inspire fireworks. Happy, new and year, that is. It’s among the few expressions improved by novelty spectacles and a sparkler. But while the phrase has been the same for generations, how we express it has transformed in just a few years. That sparkler, for example, can blaze on your smartphone screen (once you download the app). And photos of you wearing those funny glasses can go global by 12.01am.

Australians are intoxicated with social media and, come tonight, many will be using them intoxicated, too. According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, in the year to June, almost 40 per cent of the nation’s population logged on to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter – up 400,000 on the previous year. As those 8.7 million people are drinking, chatting or dancing tonight, a fair share will also be uploading, posting, sharing or tweeting.

Of course, this social explosion of electronic cheer will be accompanied by a collective tapping of texts (Telstra alone had estimated it would carry about 66 million of these across last New Year’s Eve and January 1). But as a portrait of someone’s party night, a text seems old hat and one-dimensional viewed against the spectrum of detail provided by social media.

A digital native gearing up for the night out, for instance, might use photos published on Twitter to vet an outfit (in 140 characters or fewer) with thousands of followers. Hours later – after checking the address for the party on Facebook – she could use Foursquare’s ”check-in” feature to broadcast her location online. Flowing as steadily as the drinks, tagged photos and status updates could keep her up-to-date with how the night’s unfolding elsewhere. A mobile phone video can be uploaded on to YouTube and immediately distributed to her pals via Facebook or Twitter. All before they – and millions of others – add their tipsy tweets to a torrent of joy at midnight.

This may seem an extreme example but it’s not. A drip-feed of digital connections is now crucial to many people’s social lives – just watch how many are glued to fancy phones at the next gathering you attend. But just how enmeshed with our lives is social media? Is it an adjunct to our social lives, or do we need it to function? And who’s using it anyway?

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) surveyed 1800 Australians to find out and the results bear out what any parent of teenagers will tell you. Social media – with Facebook the biggie – have become so ingrained that entire sectors of society find it hard to interact without them. For example, more than half (52 per cent) of the 736 respondents aged 18 to 30 said they would lose contact with many of their friends if they stopped using Facebook. About a quarter (26 per cent) of all the age groups sampled said they went out more as a result of social media. And it’s not only Meg Ryan who’s got mail – seems it’s her cyber-savvy peers as well. A fifth of those aged 31 to 50 said they’d had an intimate relationship with someone they’d met online.

The APS’s Dr Rebecca Mathews likened the demographic trickle-up effect of social media to the advent of the mobile phone. ”There were all these people, these adults, who were reluctant to have a mobile – we know now that almost everyone has one,” she said. ”And it’s the same we’ve found with this: that almost everyone is involved with online social networking.”

The relentless spread of social media probably means you’re at most only a couple of degrees of digital separation from your boss. Anything posted mid-celebration tonight could boomerang back to whack you in ways far worse than tomorrow’s hangover ever could.

Just ask Antony Dekort, who was sacked after he posted photos of his New Year’s Eve on Facebook. The Port Macquarie barman had called in sick and, despite being able to produce a doctor’s certificate, Fair Work Australia found the digital evidence damning. Or as commissioner Michelle Bissett put it in another recent judgment: ”It would be foolish of employees to think they may say as they wish on their Facebook page with total immunity from the consequences.”

While the ramifications aren’t as dire for most, many of us have learnt that social media has a downside, too. Keep this in mind tonight: almost a third of those surveyed by the APS had posted something they regretted online. And it’s easy to see why. Although alcohol exacerbates the scale of any social misjudgment, your digital voice booms louder online. Evidence of your social transgression is not just witnessed in a sticky-floored room but across your entire social network – in an instant and, potentially, forever.

The perils of drinking and digitising have spawned safeguards such as the Social Media Sobriety Test, which forces users to perform a series of simple co-ordination tests before granting access to Facebook et al. It’s a novelty site but perhaps it’s telling that it resembles technology devised to stop drunks getting behind the wheel of a car. So you might love tonight, hate it, endure it or sleep through it but when the (digital) clock ticked over into the internet age, it brought social media with it. And like the random guy who turns up at your party, drinks your beer and makes a pass at your friends, it’s not leaving any time soon.

But perhaps this era of ever-increasing screen resolutions can bring goals for the new year into sharper focus as well. At the very least, ”I will update my Facebook privacy settings” should join our roster pledges to lose weight, give up the smokes and call (or at least email) our mums.

Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

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