Is social media a boom or bane?

IT IS amazing to see how ICT (information and communications technology) adoption and the popularity of the Internet have really taken off.

With a rising online population and a near-full cellular penetration across the country, Malaysia is - at least from an infrastructure standpoint - well on its way to realising its vision of becoming a developed nation by 2020.

Today, there are about 16.5 million Internet users, eight million Facebook users and a growing broadband penetration rate that is expected to reach 50% of households by year end. World is truly at the dawn of a new era of online connectivity.

Findings from a recent survey on social media conducted by international research firm TNS involving 50,000 consumers in 46 countries show that Malaysians have an average of 233 friends in their social network, the highest in the world.

The survey also found that Malaysians spend an average of nine hours a week on social media sites, more than any other country in the world.

This means more and more Malaysians are getting connected to the rest of the world as never before in the country's entire history. Access to internal and external content, ideas and culture will be unprecedented for the majority of citizens.

Growing business through social media
The strength of the Malaysian online presence and broadband penetration means that there are opportunities aplenty for business and commercial endeavours.

Already, we are seeing budding entrepreneurs setting up online businesses to serve not just local customers but also those residing overseas.

The Government continues to invest significantly to encourage greater use of ICT and the Internet by local companies and businesses, especially small and medium businesses (SMBs).

SMBs, with limited resources and marketing muscle compared to large enterprises, have the most to gain from using social media to engage and reach out to existing and potential customers.

However, it is important to realise that this channel needs to be used appropriately which calls for a different strategy unlike traditional media.

Traditional media approach is typically a one-way conversation while social media is a near real-time interactive platform that enables SMBs to have conversations and interactions with its target audience.
Building trust is also an important consideration when engaging in social media. As consumers have the option to select their communities and online associates, it accounts for a high level of trust in their interactions.

SMBs can take the opportunity to build a trusted and loyal community of existing or potential customers through social media.

Social media threats
Undoubtedly, while there are many benefits to become more connected and engaged, one must always remember that there is also a need to be fully equipped with the necessary knowledge, expertise and tools to tackle the challenges and threats in the online world.

Cyberthreats come in many guises ranging from online fraud, malicious codes to identity theft and system intrusion.

With the social media explosion, not just by individuals, but also commercial entities ranging from SMBs to large corporations, the risks of becoming victims to the various threats online also increase. Social media is no exception.

In September 2010, phishing on social media comprised about 2.5% of all phishing activities globally, according to most of the Anti Virus and Spamming Report.

There were 10 popular social networking brands observed in these phishing attacks. In total, Symantec observed a 38% increase in the number of phishing attacks on social media from the previous month.
Mitigating risks

The use of social media for criminal purposes has certainly arrived. But SMBs leveraging the social media platform or plan to do so to reach out to customers and enhance their presence online should not shy away from it.

I would like to suggest that SMBs mitigate these risks by taking three key initiatives:

  1. Develop a social media policy that lays out specific employee policies or guidelines, depending on the company's needs and risks;
  2. Invest in software tools that can help develop and enforce IT policies around social media. Implement tools that enable the use of social media while guarding against data loss; and,
  3. Adopt a defence-in-depth approach since it is not only the endpoints that are vulnerable to attacks. Web filtering and gateway protection technologies are as important as endpoint security.
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