In the third installment of CNBC’s social media on campus series, a senior at the University of Washington in Seattle, Haylee Millikan, explains how social media went from totally taboo to totally changing her life and the world of political activism.

I wasn’t allowed to have an account on social media until I was 15. Of course, I didn’t obey that, but back then, it was a common belief that a young person on social media was “putting themselves at risk” by sharing private information. People were afraid that the open information on the Internet would lead to terrible consequences.

All sorts of crime shows have released episodes about serial killers preying on young people through Twitter, Facebook or Myspace. They would show a montage of selfies and statuses detailing where the person was, what they were doing and who they were with. Every detail of their lives was made public so logically, someone could use that information to find them.

Haylee Millikan

Source: Mckenzie Lancaster
Haylee Millikan

But what is social media really like for young adults? Is it the scary, too-vulnerable, mysterious place that older generations seem to have thought it was? Not for me, that’s for sure!

According to those crime shows, nothing good happens on the Internet. There are only the perverted, the malevolent and the conceited. That does exist, but my experience of social media has also been one filled with incredible community, empathy, intelligence and creativity.

The last few years have been huge for social media activism, with important movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #ShoutYourAbortion, #YesAllWomen and #StopGamerGate making their way across popular social platforms. Facebook and Twitter may seem trivial to some but each of these movements has been greatly catalyzed as a result of social media. The ability to mobilize is a great strength for social movements and activist groups, and it’s a trait the Internet has regardless of the topic.

Beyond the actual social aspect, I also believe that social media has become an excellent marketing tool in the 21st century. I read more and more stories about people who are able to make a living using social media to market the goods and services they are selling or who advertise others’ products and are paid generously. I’ve worked for a number of various individuals and organizations, running their social media accounts, and there’s no shortage of jobs in the social media field.

Marketing on the Internet has changed: for creatives, crafting a brand through social media is one of the ways in which you gain a more attentive following. Creating an image on social media, whether fabricated or genuine, drives so much of modern advertising. Think of the young Kardashians— as much as I hate seeing that they’re trending, their livelihoods probably depend on the continuation of their followings on social media. When they trend on social media platforms, they drive traffic to sites that sell their various products. For example, Kylie Jenner’s lipstick line for MAC has sold out in under a minute in the past. Even if you are like me and don’t care about the Kardashians at all, you have to admit they’re doing something right in terms of capitalizing on their fame.

I use the Internet, including social media, as a creativity-catalyzer and journal. Following different people who I share interests with on Instagram and Twitter pushes me to be a better artist and writer. The political blogs on my Facebook feed ensure that I’m up to date, informed and active in what I care about. And when I want to reach out to my friends with things I’m unsure about, I feel supported by the community that exists online. And it’s so much faster than reaching out to each one of your friends individually.

Some of the first people who I really felt understood me were friends I met through the Internet. I was bullied incessantly growing up, but on social media there were opportunities for me to be myself in ways I couldn’t at school or at home. I came out as bisexual online far earlier than I did in my “actual” life, but the experience of being open about who I was online made the transition so much easier.

Once I left home to attend college, I started using social media as a way to stay in touch with friends all over the world. I have people I haven’t seen in years who I still feel close to, regardless of physical presence because I connect with them often online. Instead of having to keep a detailed list of contact information, my friends from Paris, Montana andAustralia are all easily available on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram; I can see what they’re doing with their lives, even if they’re far away.

Silhouette of man against Twitter logo

Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Part of the reason I love social media so much is it allows me to quickly disperse information I think is important for people to know. I post petitions and articles about issues not popular in corporate media like the Mississippi Choctaw case in the Supreme Court. And it’s not just me— people all over the world are using social media to disseminate information. I firmly believe that social media has created a space for people to come together with shared experiences with hashtags such as #Blackoncampus. It’s so easy to incite empathy, to lift up voices that are underrepresented in the media because social media is controlled by the people and not institutions that benefit from the silencing of those voices.

I think the idea that young people only use social media as a way to stay self-involved completely overlooks the real tangible ways that it helps us connect to our friends and to the world. I post a lot on my Instagram account regarding my health problems and have found a very supportive community of people who understand what I’m going through. Having this community, even if it’s “just” online, makes day-to-day life much easier.

That being said, not every experience I’ve had on social media is positive. Being a young female writer, and being open about my life on social media, puts me at increased risk for harassment. I’ve had multiple fake accounts on Facebook target me and my friends, sharing images I’ve posted with alternate captions and mean-spirited comments. I regularly get incredibly inappropriate messages, ones I try my best to ignore.

However, even with all that, the positive far outweighs the negative. The relationships I’ve built, the confidence I’ve gained, and the marketing skills I’ve cultivated, all of these things far surpass any hope I had for what social media could do. Something I once thought was banal and shallow has become an invigorating and powerful part of my life, keeping me informed and positive. Who knows what the next five years will hold in technological changes, but I can’t imagine I’ll stop using social media anytime soon.

Going forward, I know I’ll continue using social media regularly. Instagram is my online journal, where I try to practice radical authenticity by posting even when I’m not having beautiful, adventurous days. I run a few organization’s Facebook pages, and I post poems and articles I’ve published and little notes to my friends. I have to have a Twitter for work, but it’s mostly retweets and the occasional unanswered question, Snapchat I hardly check, and Pinterest is for looking at clothes and apartment accessories I can’t afford right now. I’m sure in a few months there will be a new one that I need to get used to, but until then, that’s all I regularly use.

Commentary by Haylee Millikan, a senior studying creative writing and philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle. She has been the head of the opinion section at The Daily for almost a year, and also runs the Women’s Action Commission of the ASUW. She was a finalist for the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate last year, and is above all else a poet, artist, and activist. Follow her on Twitter @hayleemaid.
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