Sunday, May 18, 2008

Social media is not social

You all know my views on so-called social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. I'm not a fan. I think that they encourage people to provide far too much information about themselves, including personal data that could be used against them. What is the fascination? I don't want to be poked or have a virtual vampire bite me. I don't want to share photos of my friends and family with the world. I could maybe understand it if the photos illustrated a story or provided a snapshot of an event (as often found on blogs and websites). But social networking sites aren't about producing anything worthwhile. They're just about timewasting. And, sadly, they are all about selling you crap. By joining Facebook et al, you are saying that you are happy to give them details about yourself and your friends which they can use to target you for advertising and marketing. Expect a torrent of spam, pop-ups and junk mail.

And there may be a more sinister side to the whole business ...

Stephen Waddington at Rainier PR understands social networking sites. But, as he pointed out on a recent blog post, 'I’m starting to think that social networking sites aren’t a bit social. They’re elitist, where the metrics of success are your number of friends, happy go lucky photos, Funwall postings, backlinks and blog comments.'

He's right. Most kids I know who use Facebook count the number of friends they have on-line (even if they're people they've never even heard of, let alone met) as a measure of their own popularity and self-worth. That's no measure of success. I get a lot of hits on my blog but what do those hits really tell me about the people who've popped by? Nothing at all. Even Grazia magazine, which many would see as a guide to the shallower end of lifestyle choices, has declared Facebook as 'bankrupt'. 'I can't keep up with the friend requests, the requests to confirm how we know each other, the requests to tell you I like you, the requests to tell you I want you to tell me what movies you want to tell me about, etc.', they concede. 'I just find it crazy and the pace is so fast that very little of substance is being done. Folks have just opted in to another out of control inbox... I'm opting out.'

Paul Tero, at marketing company Nixon McInnes, believes that social networking is only social if people use it to meet people and get out and socialise. He goes on to point out that, 'Any interaction (on-line) is usually via words only. And according to a 1971 study by Albert Mehrabian, the words we use in a conversation only account for 7% of our decision as to whether or not we like the other person. 38% is from tone of voice and 55% from body language. So if we interact only via words, we are squandering a large part of our natural gift for communication.' Social networking is actually denuding our communication skills. And it allows deceit, lies and downright nastiness to hide behind a happy, smiling profile.

But is it worth getting all steamed up about? Surely it's all just a bit of fun, isn't it? Ah, would that it were, would that it were (said in my best Robert Robinson voice). Tom Hodgkinson (of How to be Idle fame) has written an excellent little booklet called We want everyone - Facebook and the new American Right (Parts of it were published in The Guardian in January). In the booklet, he explains that Facebook is nothing more than cynical, information-gathering and advertising-targeting software wrapped up in the guise of 'How to share your life with the world and appear to have more friends'. It's no secret. Tom hasn't spent years in deep cover to get this information. It's all freely available - but people just don't bother to go and look for it. They just blindly sign up to these sites because their mates have all signed up. The people behind Facebook are not the fun-loving hippy geeks you'd imagine them to be and they know a bit about what makes you tick:

'Although the project was initially conceived by media cover star Mark Zuckerberg, the real face behind Facebook is the 40-year-old Silicon Valley venture capitalist and futurist philosopher Peter Thiel. There are only three board members on Facebook, and they are Thiel, Zuckerberg and a third investor called Jim Breyer from a venture capital firm called Accel Partners (more on him later). Thiel invested $500,000 in Facebook when Harvard students Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskowitz went to meet him in San Francisco in June 2004, soon after they had launched the site. Thiel now reportedly owns 7% of Facebook, which, at Facebook's current valuation of $15bn, would be worth more than $1bn.'

So, some people are making big bucks out of you having lots of pseudo friends, eh? The plot thickens ...

'Thiel's philosophical mentor is one René Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behaviour called mimetic desire. Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel's virtual worlds: the desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook. Girard is a regular at Thiel's intellectual soirees. What you don't hear about in Thiel's philosophy, by the way, are old-fashioned real-world concepts such as art, beauty, love, pleasure and truth. The internet is immensely appealing to neocons such as Thiel because it promises a certain sort of freedom in human relations and in business, freedom from pesky national laws, national boundaries and suchlike. The internet opens up a world of free trade and laissez-faire expansion. Thiel also seems to approve of offshore tax havens, and claims that 40% of the world's wealth resides in places such as Vanuatu, the Cayman Islands, Monaco and Barbados. I think it's fair to say that Thiel, like Rupert Murdoch, is against tax. He also likes the globalisation of digital culture because it makes the banking overlords hard to attack: "You can't have a workers' revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu".'

(Read the whole feature here).

Thiel and his ilk are outright unashamed capitalists who believe that work and the acquisition of wealth are the most important things in life. They are nearly all neo-conservative Right wingers (remember the debacle about 'No gays allowed on Facebook' a few months ago? Guess where that originated?) These are not the sorts of people I want to associate with, let alone give my money to. But millions of you do by answering the ads that pop up on Facebook. Your beautifully crafted on-line profile provides their marketing people with the sort of data that allows them to target you (and your friends) unmercifully with stuff that will appeal. By January 2009, Facebook will have over 200 million active members. If even a tiny percentage respond to the adverts and pop-ups, the men behind Facebook make even more millions. And with their views on tax, you can be sure that only a tiny proportion of your money will ever be recycled back into the economy or social welfare systems.

I guess it could be argued that my blog is a form of social networking - but I don't use it that way. I use it as a showcase for my writing and my art. It performs the same role as a website - but with more frequent updates. It's got me some work and, more importantly, I've made new friends who I have gone on to meet for real in FleshSpace.

FleshSpace ... I may have to trademark that.

And, as a final warning klaxon, just remember that the recent glut of connected suicides in Bridgend, Wales is possibly connected to a social networking pact. Certainly, it's an avenue that the police are investigating. Isn't that a worrying development? As Stephen Waddington says, 'Is this real life moving into a digital sphere? Or something more sinister ...' All I know is that the term 'private life' includes the word 'private' for a good reason.

I'll leave you in the capable hands of Tom Hodgkinson again:

'For my own part, I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook doing something useful, such as reading books. [...] I don't want to retreat from nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It's free, it's easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it's called talking.'


Blog Princess G said...

Well blogged, Stevyn. And btw, have you tried to opt out of Facebook? They keep your account for you... just in case. That creeped me out no end.

Stevyn Colgan said...

I have tried to leave or 'opt out' as they call it, and couldn't of course. They keep a copy 'for my convenience' - that's what it says in their terms and conditions. Then the blody thing was reactivated when someone poked me (Oo-er). So I just didn't put any information of any worth on it and have left it in a state of dormancy. Big Brother is alive and well ... or should I say 'Big Sibling?' Actually, 'big' is a bit subjective, isn't it? How about 'Dominant sibling?'

There, surely I can't offend anyone with that ..

Blog Princess G said...

You go ahead and offend Face Book all you like. :)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Okay. Facebook? You're a bunch of bumholes.

Tee hee.

Lavinia Ladyslipper said...

I have never joined any of those so-called networking sites. I don't understand the appeal. Pick up the phone, people! Or is that too "so ten years ago".

The most appalling thing to me is how technology has been used by some people to largely replace human interaction. I have friends (or should I say they used to be friends) whose phone calls and face to face meetings with me gradually were replaced by emails; followed by simply forwarding news articles/links/funnies to me, with no personal message whatsoever....hmmmm, this is what they consider 'keeping in touch' to be? Or friendship? Ummm....not in my book. A certain segment of society has fastened onto technology to conduct their interpersonal relations, perhaps due to laziness, but maybe also because they never really enjoyed those interpersonal relations in the first place; but nevertheless do not want to think of themselves as sadly 'friendless'. I think some people just enjoy the illusions? Is this why these sites are so popular? You can have all sorts of fizzy communiques with others, portraying yourself as a glamorous or sociable gadfly, but all the while you are sitting alone in your ratty old bathrobe with uncombed hair. Zero effort and zero risk.

What do you think, Stevyn?

Stevyn Colgan said...

L - personally, I'm a social creature. One of my greatest joys in life is sitting in the sun in a nice beer garden outside a pub by the river, enjoying quality cask ales and good food with my friends and family. The online world provides us with the opportunity of meeting new friends or communicating with existing friends who are far away (I regularly use the video conferencing on MSN to talk to friends in North Carolina, Texas, New York and Kentucky for example). The danger comes, as you so rightly point out, when these media replace real interactions.

There was a fascinating (and scary) documentary on Brit TV recently called 'Virtual Adultery and Cyberspace Love'. It was all about 'Second Life' which, if you don't know, is an on-line virtual environment where you create an avatar of yourself (invariably slimmer, better looking etc.) and, like a video game, your avatar walks around this virtual world meeting others. The TV show centred on a housewife from Oregon who had become so immersed in this virtual world that she was on-line for up to 15 hours a day and was neglecting her husband and kids. The allure of the 'better' virtual world was so strong that she honestly believed that she had fallen in love - or that her avatar had fallen in love with another person's avatar - to the extent that they were even having virtual sex.

The story took a truly sinister turn when she decided to pack her bags and fly to London to meet the man behind the avatar. Needless to say, both were hugely disappointed. She was an attractive though homely housewife. He was a balding, middle-aged bike messenger. Hardly the huge breasted Amazon or ripply-muscled warrior figures that were portrayed within 'Second Life'.She's now trying to mend her marriage.

I have no problems with technology per se. Technology is allowing us to have this conversation now. It's a good 'second best' because we can't meet face to face due to a pretty big ocean. I'd much rather be having this chat in a beer garden in the sun by a river ...

Blog Princess G said...

I concur wholeheartedly Doctor. The most worrying part is for the newest generation. They have known this odd sort of communication, that helps them avoid face to face contact, which - especially when dealing with conflict - is not teaching them about the big, wonderful world. I have a friend who is working very hard to make sure his three kids get lots of time "out there", but it can be a heck of a battle.

Off to meet a friend for breakfast. And no virtual food! Ugh, what a tragedy THAT would be. Hee hee!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Virtual food? Eek!

Life would no longer be worth living. I feel a risotto coming on ...

Lavinia Ladyslipper said...

Stevyn, cyberspace love is a joke. Stay away...its as phony as the proverbial three dollar bill.

Never heard of that documentary or that website; not really sure what an avatar is either, its all smoke and mirrors. Yes technology allows us to communicate, especially with those on the other side of the globe; thats good as far as it goes. But its more about sharing information than making a real connection, n'est pas?

I'm laughing over your funny line about the mutual disappointment of those two meeting. In cyberspace you can be a slim young nymph or a tall handsome Cary Grant look-a-like and nobody's the wiser, but of course, one's own mirror never lies...!

Stevyn Colgan said...

LL - Don't panic! I won't be looking for cyberspace lurv. It's all I can do to cope with real women.

As I understand it, 'Avatar' was a Hindu word meaning a manifestation of one of their gods in the real world; a projection into our space. It was picked up by the computer geeks years ago as a name for a virtual reality alter-ego. 'Second Life' (apparently) involves you creating a character and living that character's life vicariously. They are your 'projection'. It's all quite silly in my humble opinion. And, as I said in my original post, it does allow people to hide behind a virtual face. It's a real issue for parents as the 'person' their kids are talking to on-line may be a very different person in real life. There have been cases of paedophiles using these systems to recruit young kids but such events are (thankfully) quite rare and not nearly as common as the tabloid press would have us believe.

Still, it does no harm to take an interest in what your kids are up to and impose some controls if (but only if) they're needed.

There's been a huge discussion raging on Rose DesRocher's blog about the on-line Virtual Bimbo game. You can read it here:

It's amazing how many strong passions have been stirred up.

Lavinia Ladyslipper said...

virtual bimbo? what on earth?
I am feeling more and more like a Luddite...but I don't mind. It's all silliness. I hereby declare that I am pooh-poohing everything under the cyber sun (current blog and other faves notwithstanding!).
My God, someone's got to draw a line in the sand. The cyber sand. I want to be on that river barge right now, a veritable sea hag !

Jenni Lloyd said...

Hi Stevyn

Read your post with interest - I work at NixonMcInnes and the post of Paul's that you reference is one of the most popular on our blog, with a long involved comment stream attached.

I completely understand your point about privacy - and the shadowy underpinnings of Facebook - but I don't share your disapproval/distrust of social networking as a whole.

I believe that all tools, online or off, reflect the people who use them and that we are in the very early stages of understanding a new form of social interaction. Bored housewives can find excitement with the milkman, or in Second Life - but it stems from the same sense of internal dissatisfaction.

The only thing I'm convinced of is that to understand something you need to participate. The Bridgend suicides have more to with local youth disaffection than membership of social networks - the victims were of an age when the majority of their peers engage in one social network or another, it wasn't belonging per se that caused them to take their lives.

However, understanding the new online social environment is something that parents are duty bound to do - but all too often dismissive of.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks for your comment Jenni. It's very gratifying to have helped to generate some discussion on this subject. My worries over the growth of social networks lies not so much with the networks themselves - anything that enables communication can only be a positive step in my book - but with the motives behind their creation and the shadowy people that drive them. I'm all for getting people talking (hence this blog) but not at the expense of losing our social skills. I'm already meeting kids who simply have no idea how to talk to each other.

Do pass on my regards to Paul - it was a fascinating read.