The Delusion of Social Media

Am I the only person in the Western hemisphere who thinks we’ve been bullied into amazement at the wonders of social media?

© 2013 Keith McWalter

Let me be clear: I am not a Luddite.  If anything, I’m the classic early adopter, always overly enthused –to the point of gullibility– about the latest technological innovation, medical advance, scientific discovery, or gadget.  I read blogs and I write this one.  My entire professional career has been spent facing a computer screen of one kind or another, starting with Vydec machines back in the ‘70s (visualize a dedicated word processor the size of a Mini Cooper).  I’ve witnessed first-hand the successive leaps in ease and speed that computers have bestowed on office work since the very beginnings of enterprise IT.  I generally prefer to read e-books over print books.  Streaming video on the newest, biggest flat-screen TV?  Bring it.  And yes, I have an iPhone and at least two iPads at last count.

But am I the only person in the Western hemisphere who thinks we’ve been bullied into amazement at the wonders of what we have come to call social media?

This came into focus when I recently saw a very young man who is the founder of Tumblr interviewed on TV by Charlie Rose.  I know about Charlie Rose.  He’s been doing interviews for 40 years or so, and he’s good at it. He has lots of wrinkles and a seasoned mind.  I’d never heard of the kid.  And let’s be clear, he is a kid, barely into his twenties.  He had just sold Tumblr to Yahoo for over a billion dollars.  (Imagine writing that sentence 30 years ago and asking someone to guess what it was saying.  They would have thought the writer was schizophrenic, or at the very least bad at spelling.)  The kid had never been to college.  He was home-schooled, near as I could tell.  He was clearly very bright and articulate and respectful of his parents, who had evidently indulged his every whim, and as his whims about computers had made him a billionaire, he at least had the grace to thank them for not making him do something less lucrative, like learn French or study English literature.

As I watched the kid chat with Charlie Rose, I thought:  What the hell?  In what world does a callow twenty-year-old with bangs down to his eyebrows come anywhere near a company worth a billion dollars, except on Bring Your Child to Work Day?  Then it occurred to me that this was a very old-mannish thing to ask, and that the answer is:  my world.

I whipped out one of my iPads and opened an account on Tumblr.  What the hell?  My first impression is: Pinterest on adulterated steroids.  Facebook with subject windows.  Lots of obvious subject categories, randomly presented.  No editing, no hierarchical or Boolean search.  (Enter “Melville” in the search box and you get someone named Brandy Melville who evidently sells hot pants.)  This is worth a billion dollars?

Am I just being an old fogey about it?  Do I just resent the success of a kid who isn’t old enough to have worked hard at anything for very long and can’t possibly know what it means to have made a billion dollars, much less what one might do with it?  Am I being an elitist neanderthal in thinking that commerce ought to heap staggering riches on greater achievements than this?  Am I missing the point?  Or is the social media emperor really buck naked?

The kid said all the right things about Tumblr doing no evil and being a benign force for benignness, or something.  Then Charlie Rose asked the kid how Tumblr would make enough money to justify its billion dollar price tag.  The kid answered immediately: advertising.  Well, there you go.  The same answer that every social media mogul gives to this question.  Not creating value by building or editing or explaining or ameliorating anything — just selling ad space.  The fact that this means, inevitably, detracting from whatever it was that originally drew people to your platform seems not to matter.

Much of Internet commerce is based on a very old but not very ethical sales concept: the bait and switch.  Attract people with one thing, then sell them another.  This was the basic business model of our old friend, broadcast television.   Get eyeballs on the screen watching stuff for free, then show them ads that someone paid to put there.  The Internet has become broadcast TV with crowd-programming.  Attract people to a search engine and free email, or to a free means to engage in trivial exchanges with their friends, or to trade snippets of conversation of 140 characters or less, or to shoot digital birds into stick castles, then give them…advertising.

We recognize that while social media are riding the same one-trick advertising pony as 1950s television, the modes of advertising they employ are a lot more insidious and invasive.  Time was, the guys and gals on Madison Avenue had to rely on their wits and worldliness to imagine what the public wanted and how to sell it to them.   You knew when you were being sold; it was pretty obvious when the show ended and the commercial began.   Now it’s all about data mining and dressing up ads as though they were news from your friends:  we have no idea what patterns in our posts and emails and web searches are being discerned with Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms, or what information about us is being sold as a result.

Maybe this isn’t progress.

But who cares about privacy?  Privacy is so 20th century.  You can’t live in the modern world and hope to prevent the next marathon bombing if you care about privacy.  Cyber-stalkings, identity theft and political rants are the price we pay for the “like” button.  No, social media’s real failings are not about the loss of privacy, though that is real.  They have to do with the debasement of free speech.

Why are we attracted to social media?  Let’s take Facebook.  We are attracted to Facebook for two primary reasons:  everyone else seems to be on it, and it’s free.  Of course, everyone else is on it because it’s free.  If you had to pay money to use it, Facebook would vanish overnight.

What utility does Facebook have?  It’s a method of communicating with a large group of people quickly and easily.  That sounds good, until you realize that this means they can all simultaneously communicate with you as well, without your having the slightest ability to prioritize what you want to hear or from whom, short of shutting them out entirely (the dreaded “de-friending”).  In this respect it is a seriously devolved version of email.  The result is, let’s face it, cacophony of the very lowest order, a 24-hour-a-day, multi-lingual town hall meeting with a microphone for every attendee, no moderator, and no agenda.  As a method of communication, it’s at best inefficient and at worst a waste of time.

On Facebook, every moron has his or her say, on equal footing with the best and the brightest among us.  This was brought home to me during last year’s Presidential campaign, when my FB page became a wailing wall of mostly right-wing diatribe and salacious political half-truths.   Remind me to de-friend myself before the next election.

Is this a good place for individuals and small businesses to advertise anything?  Not to anyone I know.  Whatever you post – a photo for a dog adoption or a notice of your next poetry reading — is buried under the avalanche of further posts, likes, tags, pokes, pet videos, and suspiciously out-of-date profile photos.  The only constant is the stream of paid advertisements down the right margin, which spookily mirror what’s flowing along in the avalanche, and smell of shill.

In a word, it’s trivial.  In a sense this is no criticism, as Facebook was designed for a trivial purpose, and only recently has assumed the mantle of a socially significant corporate juggernaut run by the kind of celebrity executive who can presume to tell other working women to “lean in.”  Facebook, Twitter, and the rest represent high-tech and high finance in the service of the silly; like using microwave transmissions from space to light a high school prom. Yes, there is the example of Facebook facilitating the Arab Spring, but this occurred in the absence of any other reliable, credential-based communications media, which are available in abundance in the West.  In another era, we wrote letters and manifestos.  Now we tweet.

In addition to the constant stream of trivialities, Facebook and its ilk rely on the fathomless depths of our collective narcissism for their daily fodder.  Facebook and Twitter are all about self-celebrity. Where else but on Facebook would anyone feel at liberty tell everyone they know, and then some, where they’re having an espresso at that very moment, or what their little Caitlyn is wearing to school today?  Why on earth do we think anyone cares?  Only because Facebook, Twitter and their ilk encourage this sort of colossal self-absorption, which is the exact opposite of community.

One last quibble: social media are indisputably responsible for a huge loss of economic productivity, offsetting many of the gains of computers in the workplace.  I am old enough to remember when the head of the IT department in our company announced that, henceforth, the Internet would be available to all employees on their desktop computers.  I remember writing back to him (we already had email) that only for a small fraction of our workers (say, those who worked in research or corporate compliance) could Internet access have any imaginable relationship to their jobs;  for the rest (including me), it was like putting TVs on all their desks and hoping they would use them wisely.  (Needless to say, my warnings were ignored.) Who can possibly calculate the number of hours during an average workday spent not on the business of the company paying our salaries, but on buying stuff from online retailers and dicking around on Facebook?  American productivity is probably a third less than what it would have become without the addition of this universal time-sink.

So let’s see: a trivial, time-sucking enabler of our most narcissistic tendencies, offered for free because no one would pay for it, whose commercial value depends entirely on advertising to an ever-expanding user base.   Let’s just say I am not long in Facebook stock.

What is the future of Facebook and other examples of social media?  I suspect that most will eventually collapse of their own weight, when the chorus of narcissist bleatings becomes overwhelming, the resulting noise becomes tiresome, and novelty is overcome by ennui.  In the long run, technology will promote real utility, and enable us to revert to forms of communication as intensely personal and secure as the handwritten letter sealed with wax.  Someday, perhaps, I will be able to zap a message across town to my wife – and only my wife — with just a thought, and hear her reply in my head without even the interposition of my data-trolling iPhone.   My message might be trivial, but at least it will be private.  I’d be willing to pay for it, and advertising would have to happen elsewhere.

The future lies not in ever more clever versions of social media’s bait-and-switch, but in eliminating boundaries to truly personal communication, and in salvaging the personal from the social.

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