Does Social Media Run our Lives?

A photo of a young girl in Paris near Eiffel Tower taking a Selfie with Phone.
Does Social Media Run our Lives and Our Travel too? (Getty Image)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Does social media run our lives? My college roommate is a teacher in Los Angeles. He and I stay in touch, and we had planned to take a Spring Break trip this month.  This is a tradition  since we roomed together (except in 2020). Now he heard on Facebook that he was not supposed to post pictures. And he wants to cancel the trip and not travel. Is this fair?  Christian, San Francisco

Dear Christian: When I started this column, I expected that the majority of letters would be about bad digital behavior and public shaming, but now that seems wrong. Human behavior is so much more complex. It’s too easy to blame the Internet for our woes.

Travel for younger people is often inspired by photo-opportunities and bragging rights. In a 2018 travel study, Millennials and GenZ noted that posting travel pictures was also artistic and helped them feel connected. They hoped to visit exotic or scenic locales, and use smartphone cameras to record the moment. That’s not so different than the behavior of old-fashioned tourists, except that elders did not share their photos as publicly. 

More Than Pictures

But, photos are the superficial issue. Your friend may not want to go because of a larger, more pressing issue brought on by social media. The teacher’s union worries  that parents, and other members of the public, will find the holiday photos online.  Social media would reveal if teachers are straying far from home.

A similar issue occurred in Broward County (Florida). There, the School District reopened schools after they scoured teacher’s Facebook pages, and found some of them posting pictures from restaurants, Disney, and beach vacations. The teachers and lawyers went head to head. 

It is likely that your friend wants to cancel the trip because social media might “follow” him. That is the overarching concern if someone takes vacation pictures and then posts them on social media, even if they can obscure the time and date of the posting.

Whose Social Media?

Your friend is posting on his personal account, so the vetted social media policy for the school district does not apply.  But, it’s a slippery slope. School districts have challenged the rights of students to post on social media when their posts do harm and injury to classmates. When private posts go public, we begin to change our behaviors.

The way I see it, and you may disagree, teachers are opinion leaders, role models, and upholders of community values. They can’t be willy-nilly about their social media posts, any more than a federal judge, a medical doctor or a rabbi. Each profession upholds a duty and responsibility to their constituency. So, for your friend, it’s not about travel photos per se, but about the milieu of leadership and values. 

Digital Literacy for Adults too

Ironically, some school districts instruct students in a curriculum called “digital literacy.” It’s designed to make students better digital citizens. We should not neglect teachers and educators. We expect adults to be good role models, but most of them have not grown up with the technology, and are in some ways, less informed than the ‘digital native’ students. Skills like privacy controls, identifying deep fakes, and manipulating images may not be in the adult’s toolbox. 

The University of San Diego publishes a “9 P” digital literacy curriculum, one of many out there.  Their fourth “P” is about photographs- with content on geotagging, facial recognition software, and general precautions on photo posting. 

So take heed! Teachers and parents learned in more traditional ways and have a lot to learn from the digital literacy classes. It makes sense to assume that the more digitally literate our teachers are, the more they will employ these skills inside the classroom…and outside of them too. During these days when our travel trips are limited, and we are on social media more, it could not be more important. 

Why Use Voice Message, Not Text?

SmartPhone mockup has a giant megaphone (in 3D) emerging from the screen.
Use Voice Message for a change, not text

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When I long-distance with family in Israel they like to send voice memos instead of text. Mostly they have iPhones and they use a messaging app. It works for me. Why don’t more people here use a voice message instead of text? Len, Palo Alto

Dear Len: ” Paja Escribit”– that means too lazy to write! But you are on to something. The spoken word carries more weight and it expresses emotions and meaning more fully than text.

Your question prompted me to learn more about voice messaging.  WeChat introduced it to China circa 2013. It seems to have caught on there because linguistically speaking the Asian alphabets are complex for keyboard entry. In South America, What’s App caught on as messaging was free, but texts were not. It also got established in countries like India where there were multiple languages and regional dialects.

For readers who are not familiar with voice messaging, it’s like text, except that you speak the message. They are also called voice notes or voice memos.  Initially, the audio was limited to 15 to 30 seconds, but today it can be as long as 15 minutes. There are different platforms for sending the audio file, that I won’t  elaborate on here. The CEO of Viber, a large  messaging app, says his platform  is popular in the Middle East, as well as South East Asia and  Eastern Europe. Most of the users (75%) have Android phones. 

Voice Commands Are RISING VOICES

Now that smart devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Alexa  use voice commands instead of  keyboards, this could become the norm. Voice messaging is praised by senders who enjoy the spontaneity and informal nature. Voice commands provide greater clarity-  less ambiguity, more emotion. And, they are superior when you have detailed instructions that are too knotty to explain by text. 

And, voice messages simply go deeper. Think of exchanges where distant lovers  (or foes) are separated over time or distance. The specific words may not count but their tone and emotion convey everything.  

Voice Commanding?

But, there are two sides to an interchange. On the other hand or (ear), it’s often cumbersome to play back voice texts.  You have to be mindful where you listen and whether you have headphones on. Otherwise a quiet private message can become loud and public. Another drawback is the recording- words get garbled and sentences run on. Mostly, it’s hard to skim for content, so audio recordings demand a greater time investment. If you shun listening to stored voice mail, you get the idea. 

But, that’s my perspective. Three years ago, Facebook’s What’s App  boasted more than 1.5 billion monthly users   (Q4.2017) so clearly the rest of the world may be on to something that North America and Europe have yet to discover.

On balance, I think that voice messages are about the user (easy to send, fast, fully expressed) while they have some imbalances on the part of the listener.

Still, they do seem like the perfect instrument when you need to convey more meaning than a text, and you don’t have time for a full blown phone call.  Perhaps when you just need to say to your family overseas “I love you” and miss you so much.

Is Phone Number Safe?

A cellphone screen, just the top half, before the clubhouse audio chat app opens.
Getting signed up means giving out a phone number…

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is my phone number safe anymore? The other day I downloaded a new social media app called Clubhouse, because friends recommended it. Before it would open, the app required me to enter a phone number so it could send a verification code. It was a total accident but I got distracted and entered my spouse’s phone number by mistake. I think she walked in the room, and I wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, a few hours later her phone started getting spam calls. She thinks that there is a connection between the app and these calls.  Can you set my mind at ease !? Tristan, Petaluma

Dear Tristan: Two-step verification can be a good thing, particularly when you want to check your home security camera, look at your bank account online, or release funds, say for Venmo or Paypal. But, two step verification could be horrific if we are required to set up social media accounts with it, and these social companies do not have our solid trust.

We don’t know for sure that the Clubhouse app released or sold your spouse’s number. Incidentally, the full company name is AlphaExploration Co and as of February 2021, the audio chat program is only available on iPhone and as a beta test. I  took a look at their long privacy policy (never as much fun to read as the DearSmartphone column) and it was not so transparent, at least to a non-lawyer. 

BOring Through Legalize

Their privacy policy states that the Clubhouse app will collect a phone number, an email address, etc. and keep it all  secure. It then goes on to say it can  collect information about the people, accounts, and groups you are connected to…and they can… use that information to infer your preferences for content and features . Clubhouse won’t sell your personal data…. but can share it with vendors and service providers they work with (including advertising and CRM services). You get the drift, I hope.

That said, it seems unlikely that the spammy phone calls would begin right after your two-step authentication. It might have a been a total coincidence. That particular day, a telemarketing center, probably offshore, was spamming live accounts in a bank of stored phone exchanges. And, lots of retailers and organizations release our phone number that end up in someone else’s hands. 

BOring Through Settings

I wanted to share two screen shots from the Clubhouse app. You will find them on your iPhone by  going to SETTINGS>Clubhouse. Make sure to scroll way down until you see the logo for the Apple Store and beyond it there is an alphabetical listing of each app that is active on your phone. 

When you first download Clubhouse, each of these permissions will automatically be turned on. Essentially, the app gathers data over time about your usage to ‘personalize’ your content or ad feed. For privacy sake, turn them off. To my surprise ‘background app refresh’ is not something you want to leave on either, even on a trusty iPhone. Keep it off,  particularly for a brand new social media app says MacObserver. The refresh can send out a digital footprint with your phone number, location, email address, and more.   

It’s STILL Boring AND It’s Deep!

Hopefully your spouse will forgive you for signing up for Clubhouse with your number, and you will take the responsible step of deleting this phone number from its profile. Next time you need to provide a verification code to a third party you don’t know, consider having a simple, second phone that can send and receive SMS. Or, you can search online for web sites that promise you can get a two step verification code without having to hand over your phone.   But truly, we don’t know if they are safe either.

In closing, I just want to indulge you with one of my favorite cinema scenes- the name of the movie escapes me. In the denouement, the bad guys kidnap the wealthy businessman and hold him hostage. But it’s his smartphone they are after, not him. Once they possess his phone, they can impersonate his authority to openly send and receive the codes. The codes  transfer money and open safes. Enjoy the Clubhouse app but remember to think twice about what you talk and share.