11/15/2011 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2012

The Power and Peril of Social Networks: Two Stark Examples

As we continue to study the complex phenomenon that is social media, it is becoming evident that for every positive there is a negative; that for every story of the power of social networking there is a story of the peril of social networking. We've recently seen a perfect example of this stark contrast.

1. The Power of Social Networks. I hope you'll take time to watch this short video. It's from the recent TEDx in Manhattan Beach, CA, where 6th Grader Thomas Suarez addressed the TEDx audience. That's right, a 6th Grader. Thomas, who is too young to have his own Facebook page, is a remarkable young man. He's thoughtful, hopeful, innovative, and smart. He's an iPhone app developer and a young visionary. He shared his vision about how to help educators use the developer tools to create better educational experiences for students and teachers.

That's powerful. Thomas' message spread like wildfire across social platforms and helped us see that there are good, young minds out there coming up with ways to solve problems. Social and mobile platforms will evolve, people will continue connecting, and innovation can literally come from anyone, anywhere. The barriers to entry have been erased.

Contrast that to the loud BUZZing sound you hear as the multi-million dollar brand that was once Penn State comes collapsing in on itself.

2. The Perils of Social Networks.
This golden brand toppled in one fell swoop. Not because of social networking, but because of the shocking accusations and arrests. From the horrifying grand jury report to the student riots, to the years of trust and integrity seemingly blown away like dust, this is NOT the kind of 'going viral' on a social network that any brand wants.

Because today we view the flow of information through the Now Lens at lightning speed in real-time. So the Penn State story came at us in a rapid-fire sequence of events and emotional reactions that created the kind of chaos that becomes almost unmanagable in no time.

That bundle of rumors, innuendos, facts, and high emotion got lumped together in the digital river of people's timeline. Sorting out what's true, what's opinion, what's b.s. takes time and a thoughtful reading of the information. Much chatter developed around the firing of JoePa, which immediately sparked reaction among the student body. Even avid football fan and Twitter digerati Ashton Kutcher jumped on board in an immediate reaction that he apologized for later. And then 'quit' Twitter, but continued tweeting. Looks like confusion reigned all around.

The takeaway this week is that context and relevance matters. We used to rely on journalists, editors, and publishers to provide a filter for us. The power of social media is that we now all have a voice and the single filter has been replaced with everyone's ability to be heard in the public square.

On the positive side, the power of social media gives a voice and platform to a 6th grader to be taken seriously for his ideas.

On the negative side, the peril of social media is that we're still learning how to manage the social contract we have as a society, a public forum, a democracy, to give some time to allow for thoughtful digestion of the onslaught of information we receive before yelling "Fire!" in the crowded theater that the social platforms have become.

Beverly Macy is the CEO of Gravity Summit, LLC (TM) and the Co-Author of The Power of Real-Time Social Media Marketing. She teaches Global Marketing and Branding and Social Media Marketing for the UCLA Extension in Westwood, CA.