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Taking a Balanced Approach to Social Networks

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Invasive. Harmful to children. Isolating. Detrimental to marriages and relationships. Unintellectual. Promotes laziness and apathy.

These descriptors are often present in the political discourse around social networking and its perceived ills. On both the state and federal level, ongoing debates around privacy issues like opt-in/opt-out and geo-tagging and social issues such as online bullying frequently portray social networking as something from which government has an obligation to protect us rather than a means of building and sustaining valuable personal and community relationships.

On the other side of the fence, however, a smaller group argues that codified protection from social networking is unnecessary and excessive, pointing out that our online interconnectivity ultimately serves to boost the vitality of our offline lives. Case in point: who hasn't experienced or at least heard a story of someone reconnecting with a lost childhood friend on Facebook? Or perhaps developed a relationship with a potential business contact on Twitter only to have it turn into an offline opportunity?

The problem with these stories is that they are just that: heartwarming one-off anecdotes that, in the eyes of legislators, don't hold much weight against the perceived ills of social networking.

But thanks to the Pew Research Center, social networking proponents now have more ammunition beyond just anecdotes. You may have seen the Pew report released last month examining the impact of social networking on our social lives, which offers an overwhelmingly positive outlook for users of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and others.

Among other findings, the report concludes that Facebook users are:

  • Get more social support than other people
  • Have more close relationships
  • Are much more politically engaged than most people, a finding of particular interest to the political sphere

Technological development can certainly have a dark side, but in the case of social networking, the Pew study suggests that Congress should be careful to not hit the alarm bell too vigorously.

Contrary to the fears that regularly accompany today's political discourse, social networking and online interconnectivity on websites like Facebook seem to be gathering places for the exact types of people that every politician wants in his or her constituency: engaged and happy citizens who care about their communities.

Legislators need to strive for a measured approach that gives equal due to the very real benefits of social networking, rather than focusing exclusively on the negative.

Especially when you consider the ubiquity of Internet use and social networking in the United States -- according to Pew, 79% of American adults use the Internet and 47% of adults use at least one social networking site -- striking the right balance with legislation becomes that much more important.

A misstep by Congress could adversely affect millions of Americans, as well as stifle the Internet innovation that helps to drive forward the U.S. economy and affords us a premier place on the global technology stage. And we just might not have as many happy, civically-minded people.

Rey Ramsey is President and CEO of TechNet and Chairman of One Economy.

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