Monday, June 25, 2007

Supernova2007: How did Social Media Get to be Anti-Social?

It's taken me two days to get over the jet lag I encounterd thanks to a red-eye flight after the most excellent Supernova2007 conference ended on friday...yet I keep going over the conversation that occurred among the guys of theSocial Web panel, and find myself a bit troubled by some of their assertions about social media....

If we are to consider the opinions of this panel, they would have us believe that people use social media basically to continue their pre-existing physical world connections in an online environment--and that most of the time, people do not know what they want from social media.

To those of us who use social media on a regular basis, this is insulting nonsense.

Yet I think that when Daivd Liu of AOL (who I have a feeling I've met before) says "Lots of research shows that people don't know what they want," he misunderstood the importance of social media and confused it with what people may or may not want from information-oriented media.

There's much that says that people very in general feel overwhelmed by the plethora of choices for where they might find news and information--they're not sure about websites or blogs mostly, sometimes social news sites like Digg or Reddit if they're into that kind of thing....but this is different from the uses of most social media...

Rather, social networks built on social media, like Facebook and MySpace, which are geared towards young people of a certain age and their particular social needs--keeping in touch friends when they're away from college, finding cool new music, and making sure that mom doesn't find out they're talking to strangers--are leaving certain analyists with the impression that People only want to socialize with others that they already know. And, if they're not getting information from people they already know, that they're totally confused about their information.

I'd venture to say this is a false impression with regard to how many of us have used social media since the early days of LiveJournal and Blogger--which had little to do with finding accurate news reports (we went to newspaper websites for that.) Rather, the reasons people began to use these forms of social media has been to create their own space where people might be able to find them, and to give them an online persona that might aid in finding and sharing information with like-minded others...

In other words: social media helped to create new friends and new relationships....not to just maintain old ones, and thus expose people to new information Think about it: in the beginning, online social networks weren't populated with your friends. Often, unless your friends also had the time and money for internet access, your friends were people you called on the phone (remember that device?) Social networking to maintain pre-existing f2f friendships more than likely began with Friendster, and gained much momentum with MySpace, leading into Facebook (which is something like Friendster...only more walled....)

This panel, however, seemed to be confused about how and why people continue to socialize on the Internet outside the confines of Facebook and MySpace. Martin Varsavsky of Fon made a number of statements about how he uses his social network, created thru social media, to exchange information just among his buddies....who sounded like they were people Martin already knew f2f....

How different this was from when I heard Stowe Boyd at the Corante Symposium on Social Architecture (Nov. 2005) talk about sharing playlists with a teenager on He was discovering new music through sharing with someone who he knew only online--not someone who was a continuation of his f2f social network....

So, is it coming to this: that our social media contacts are only people we know f2f? As I said, this is one thing when it comes to professional networking as in LinkedIn where you have either met the person or worked with the person with whom you are exchanging links. Professional-level online networking, however, is different when one is simply going online to be social. (Note: I have several contacts on LinkedIn that I have never met f2f, but have built strong and important relationships via open online communication.)

Or have we come to a point where we don't do that kind of thing anymore?
We are, perhaps, no longer free to be as social as we'd like to be. Maybe now we must be vetted by Facebook, approved of through MySpace, and stamped with the Twitter seal of approval before we can even begin to communicate with someone we don't know...

If we listen to this panel's assessment of The People, we're nothing more than a group of scared, clannish folk who can't make up our minds about where we get our news, nor with whom we want to make friends.

We can't be trusted to do that on our own. We're just too confused and vulnerable.

Gosh, that's insulting.

Which makes me think that, if we continue to listen to certain pundits about social media, we will find ourselves in very much a position where we are back to a broadcast/gatekeeper model of media within the Internet space.

And, who knows...maybe that's what they want after all....

But is it what We want???

Update: The BBC reports on research about Facebook conducted by danah boyd at UCBerkeley shows that Facebook is predominantly white and upper-crusty (also see danah's post.) It's the social network of the college "in crowd"--well, I stand by my opinion that to use Facebook as a way of vetting who's who and what's what in social media is a very, very bad idea. And we all might think a bit more about what Andrew Keen has to say about the long-term effects of this new brand of digital utopianism that's eminating from the Silly Valley (more on that in another post...)


Bill Anderson said...

Tish, great, rich, post. But when you write that this summary of "The People"

"If we listen to this panel's assessment of The People, we're nothing more than a group of scared, clannish folk who can't make up our minds about where we get our news, nor with whom we want to make friends."

is insulting, I think you're wrong. I think it's a fact, and true for me as well. Freud wrote that humans are herd animals, and that we hate this about ourselves. This is tough to hear, no doubt about it. But there it is. My existential angst is in no way lessened by all the social media in the world. My connections with others is different and expanded by the technology, etc. But I'm still a creature of a culture of the individual, and that culture has problems ... big time.


Tish Grier said...

Hey Bill....I hear what your contention that the ideas express by some of the panelsits were insulting wasn't necessarily a denial of our herd instinct, but more a concern that f2f interactions *only* are what grafts directly to online interactions...

My experience with the Internet is that, by individuals being open to interaction, it has *helped* me and others find the "herd" we might not have been able to find in the f2f world. If the perception promoted to the upper echelons is that the f2f world grafts directly to our Internet worlds, we're not allowing for the diverstiy, variety, and communities of affinity that have propelled the Internet for many years.

Another concern is that this perception of clannishness, bolstered by bad metrics, will cause the Internet to sink into a broadcast model, thus giving many concerns the confidence that their currently flagging business models will be sustained because the herd can't stand creation, innovation, and finding like-minds in this new social space.

Yet we definitely agree that culture--right now--has some huge problems. I think, though, that those problems started before the Internet. (more on this when I get to W and K)

If we don't see the Internet as a social space, where we can find like minds and create new "herds," then all we have is TV all over again.

Unknown said...

Hey Tish, Very interesting post. Of course the panel were wrong, finding Like Minds is about so much more than those you already have a f2f relationship with. I don't mean to pitch but I've just launched a site for people who wish to connect with others based on what's influenced them, not who they know or where they went to school. If people want to learn more about f2f relationships they could also sign up.
It's Drop me a line, let me know what you think.