Social Media, Privacy and Online Bullying

Nowadays, most digital literates own at least one social media account. In contrast to the past when people who liked to keep their anonymity when using social media, the prevalence of social media such as Facebook consistently impose the ideology to users that connecting with people and sharing is good, encouraging users to connect with their friends, families and acquaintances using their real identities. People nowadays use social media as a tool to connect with people they already know rather than strangers, according to Jones and Hafner (2012). However, is sharing always a good thing? I will use Facebook as an example to illustrate.

Do we really ‘know’ our ‘friends’ well?

I do agree with the textbook that social media can help us connect with more and more people to the world, forming strong ties (good friends) and weak ties (friends’ friends). And, weak ties can become strong weak ties when we can get benefits such as job opportunities from them. However, do we really know all these people that well? Can they be a potential threat to us? Here is an example I want to share with you all.

In November, a married Hong Konger who will have her wedding banquet in an expensive hotel, posted a Facebook status saying that her friends should not come to the banquet if they can only pay $500 as the cash gift (‘人情’ in Chinese), which is the money we give when we attend banquets for ‘paying’ the meal). Her Facebook status was captured by her Facebook friends and was spread on forums and then on Facebook. She received overwhelmingly negative feedback and was named as ‘Kong Girl 500’ or ‘港女五百’ in Chinese. There were condemns saying that she was so snobbish and she should not hold her wedding banquet in a hotel if she did not have the money. Her major personal information including private photos, working place and social media accounts including Open Rice, Xanga, Uwants, Weibo and World of Warcraft was searched and uncovered.

Cash gift put in red pockets

Due to the huge public concern, the issue had also received wide coverage from most of the local newspapers with keywords like ‘$500’, ‘人情’, ‘五百人情’ and ‘500元(dollar)’ in the headings.

Wide local coverage

Seeing the seriousness of the issue, the girl apologized for her act and deleted her Facebook account. Later, a new Facebook user named same as the girl, responded to the incident with a provocative statement but was found to be maliciously disguised. A week later after the local coverage, Wall Street Journal posted a feature article with regard to this issue named ‘how to attract protesters to your wedding’ to discuss the wedding culture in Hong Kong.

So, from this incident, what we can realize is that our ‘friends’ can talk bad about us behind our backs. Also, they can somehow become ‘anonymous’ when they spread news about our information on Facebook as we become overconnected. It becomes difficult to track the distributor(s) as the distributor(s) can hide the message from the victim using a new anonymous Facebook account or new forum accounts to distribute the information. This is known as flaming, which is a form of digitally mediated verbal abuse, as described by Jones and Hafner (2012).

Affordances and Constraints

Social media like many other cultural tools, bring us affordance as well as constraints. On one hand, social media grant us the ability to connect with friends (strong ties) and even friends of friends (weak ties). They, at the same time, limit our abilities to speak about certain topics (politically incorrect or crazy things) that we want to – it is different from personal diaries which we assume that no one would read so we can vent our emotions freely. Social sanction such as online bullying is one factor that hinders us from disclosing information which is ‘incorrect’ in terms of moral and values. Moreover, looking at the trend right now, we can possibly be tracked by companies when searching for information of their job applicants. The video bellows address the importance of managing online reputation through social media.

Strategies when using social media

So, how can we use social media effectively? One thing we can do is to know the different social media well and their ability to help us construct different identities, so as to pick certain topics and do audience segregation. For example, on Facebook, we can mainly use to connect with friends and talk with friends about casual topics and try not to engage in controversial topics – limit the audience to very close friends or leave these for face-to-face communication (to make the speeches seem casual). For job-related information, we can use Linkedin to post our qualifications and resume and link with business associates. So, the main point is to know how to manage our impression to different people according to different contexts. Cyberspace image management is not a new concept as we can see an article talking about this in 1996.


To conclude, the openness brought by social media, at first glance, only brings affordances. However, apart from flaming, it also brings other constraints which can adversely affect our real lives such as harming our personal image and ruining our job applications. It is better to be critical when using social media.

Do you have anything to share? Please leave your comments.


Jones, R.H., & Hafner, C.A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies: A Practical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge


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