My troubled relationship with social media

6847365223_79666079f5_o

Do you care about donuts? I did, once. I’m not so sure anymore.

I used to love donuts, was passionate about donuts and spent the better part of my early career looking at the power of social media to transform our understanding of and engagement with donuts. Just this week, I had a paper published that I co-authored with colleagues looked at Twitter is being used to engage audiences on donuts, er vaping and it’s potential public health implications. I’m still into donuts, but the question is whether donuts are still serving the purpose they once did. It’s left me asking….

Is it still time to make the donuts?

Twitter turned 10 this past month. When it was founded the idea of communicating short 140 character chunks of content to the world by default (unlike Facebook, where you could restrict you posts to your ‘friends’ only by default), the idea seemed absurd, particularly to me. Why would anyone want to use something that was the equivalent of a Facebook status update without anything else? (Keep in mind that link shorteners were not yet in wide use, the embedded pictures and lists that we have now were either not invented or highly cumbersome).

However, social media is a ‘participation sport’ as I like to say and by engaging with it I soon realized Twitter’s enormous potential. For the first time I could find people who had the same quirky collection of interests as I did (e.g, systems science, design, innovation, Star Wars, coffee, evaluation, soccer, politics, stationary and fine writing instruments – and not necessarily in that order, but in that combination) and find answers to questions I didn’t think to ask from people I didn’t know existed.

It was a wonder and I learned more about the cutting edge of research there than I ever did using traditional databases, conferences or books much to the shock, horror and disbelief of my professional colleagues. I’ve often been considered an early adopter and this was no exception. I did research, consultation and training in this area and expanded my repertoire to Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn and pretty much everything I could including some platforms that no longer exist.

I developed relationships with people I’d never (and still have never) met from around the world who’s camaraderie and collegiality I valued as much or more than those people I’d known for years in the flesh. It was heady times.

But like with donuts, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. And also like donuts, where I once loved them and enjoyed them regularly consuming them now starts to not sit so well and that’s maybe for the better.

I’m left questioning whether it’s still time to make the donuts.

The river I stand in

This river I step in is not the river I stand in – Heraclitus

Like with donuts the experience of social media — the context of its use — has changed. As I age, eat better, exercise more wisely and am more mindful of how I feel and what I do, donuts lost appeal. They probably taste the same, but the experience has changed and not because the donuts are different, but my dietary and lifestyle context is.

The same is true for social media.

I have never been a techno advocate or pessimist, rather I’ve been a pragmatist. Social media does things that traditional media does not. It helps individuals and organizations communicate and, depending on how its used, engage an audience interactively in ways that ‘old media’ like billboards, radio, TV and pamphlets do not. But we still have the old media, we just recognize that it’s good at particular things and not others.

But the river, the moving and transforming media landscape, is much faster, bigger and bolder than it was before. Take the birthday girl or boy, Twitter, it’s grown to be a ubiquitous tool for journalists, celebrities and scholars, but saw a small decline in its overall use after a year of flatlined growth.

TwitterMonthlyActive 2016-04-01 13.50.14(Twitter monthly users via Tech Crunch)

As for Facebook, it’s faring OK. While it still has growth, I’ve struggled to find anyone who speaks in glowing terms about their experience with the service, particularly anyone who wishes to change their privacy settings or wishes to stem the flow of ads. Over at Instagram, my feed has seen the rise of ‘brands’ following me. No longer is it the names of real people (even if its a nickname) it’s usually some variant of ‘getmorefollowers’ or brands or something like that. This is all as I see more ads and less life.

Information overload and filter failure

Speaking to an audience in 2008, author and media scholar Clay Shirky spoke to the problem of ‘information overload’ which was a term being applied to the exponential rise in exposure people had to information thanks to the Internet and World Wide Web. At the time, his argument was that it was less about overload of information, than a failure of our filter systems to make sense of what was most useful. 

But that was 2008. That was before the mobile Internet really took off. That was when Twitter was 2 and Facebook just a couple years later. In the third quarter of 2008, Facebook had around 100,000 users and now its got a population of more 1.6B users. The river has got bigger and more full. That might be nice if you’re into white water rafting or building large hydro-electric dams, but it might be less enjoyable if you’re into fly fishing. I can’t imagine A River Runs Through It with a water feature that’s akin to Niagara Falls.

As journalist Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out in many different fora, the Internet is changing the way we think.  Indeed, ‘smarter technologies’ are changing the way we live.

This all brings up a dilemma: what to do? As one who has studied and advised organizations on how to develop and implement social media strategies I would be a hypocrite to suggest we abandon them. Engaging with an audience is better than not doing so. Humanizing communications – which is something social media can do far better than speaking ‘at’ people — is better than not. Being timely and relevant is also better than not. Yet, the degree to which social media can answer these problems is masked by the volume of content out there and the manner in which people interact with content.

Walking through any major urban area, take public transit, or watching people in line for pretty much anything will find a substantial portion of humans looking at their devices. Even couples or friends at restaurants are left to concoct games to get people paying attention to each other, not their devices. We are living in the attentional economy and what is increasingly valuable is focus, not necessarily more information and that requires filtration systems that are not overwhelmed by the volume of content.

Emotional pollution and the antisocial media

I recently wrote about how ‘the stream’ of social media has changed the way that social activism and organizing is done. While social media was once and invaluable tool for organizing and communicating ideas, its become a far more muddled set of resources in recent years. To be sure, movements like Black Lives Matter and others that promote more democratic, active social engagement on issues of justice and human dignity are fuelled and supported by social media. This is a fantastic thing for certain issues, but the question might be left: for how long?

Not so long ago, my Facebook feed was filled with the kind of flotsam, jetsam and substance of everyday life. This was about pictures of children or vacations, an update on someone’s new job or their health, or perhaps a witty observation on human life, but the substance of the content was the poster, the person. Now, it is increasingly about other people and ‘things’ . It’s about injustices to others and the prejudices that come with that, it’s about politics (regardless of how informed people are), it’s about solidarity with some groups (at the willful ignorance of others) and about rallying people to some cause or another.

While none of these are problematic — and actually quite healthy in some measure — they are almost all I see. On Twitter, people are sharing other things, but rarely their own thoughts. On Facebook, it’s about sharing what others have written and the posters emotional reaction to it.

Increasingly, it’s about social validation. Believe my idea. “Like” this post if you’re really my friend. Share if you’re with me and not with them. And so on.

What I am left with, increasingly, is a lost sense of who the ‘me’ and the ‘them’ are in my social media stream. What it feels is that I am increasingly wading into a stream of emotional pollution rather than human interaction. And when my filters are full, this gets harder to do and I’m not sure I want to be less sensitized to the world, but I also don’t want my interactions with others to be solely about reacting to their rage at the world or some referendum on their worldview. It seems that social media is becoming anti-social media.

In complex systems we might see this is as a series of weak, but growing stronger, signals of something else. Whether that’s collective outrage at the injustices of the world, the need for greater support, or the growing evidence that social media use can be correlated with a sense of loneliness, I’m not sure.

But something is going on and I’m now beginning to wonder about all those donuts we’ve created.

Photo credit: Chris Lott Social Media Explained (with Donuts) used under Creative Commons License via Flickr

About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and works at assisting organizations and networks in creative learning through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking.

 

%d bloggers like this: