Google+ was a bit of a breaking point for me. After recreating my online social network ( largely based on blogs from early 2000) in Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Quora, G+ was a chore. I spent a few weeks of responding to G+ friend requests, trying to engage with a few people, posting a few random links, all the while trying to upkeep (occasionally) Twitter and (almost never) Facebook. I’ve concluded that most of the hype around social media is nonsense and that people, particularly the self-proclaimed social media elite are clothing-less. Sure, I’ll still continue to participate in those spaces periodically – as soon as this post is done, I’ll tweet it and share it on G+. Beyond that, however, social media is getting credit for things it’s merely flowing, not actually creating.
A few things over the last few weeks have helped to crystallize this view.
First, I saw this very silly post by Jeff Jarvis, pretending that a hashtag was the equivalent of a power movement. For me, this was a threshold moment where the noise of social media and the actual impact were starkly contrasted. The notion that a hashtag=power or the no one owns a hashtag appeal to power and fairness is absolute and utter nonsense. And reveals just how vacuous power social media users are in their orientation. Washington faces a debt crisis. How do the insular self-perceived new media elites respond? “oh, let’s create a hashtag”. It’s rubbish. And it has no influence. Sure, it’s a good avenue to vent personal feelings and blow off steam. However, that is not a “movement” and it doesn’t influence policy. The notion of the Arab Spring being about social media is similarly misguided.
We are left then, with a small group elitist new media users, trying to build consultancy around the tools, and telling others how wonderful they are. What has social media actually done? Very, very little. The reason? Social media is about flow, not substance.
I’ve been blogging since 2000 and can attribute a numerous positives to this activity: I was hired at University of Manitoba because of my blog and bi-weekly newsletter. I was hired at Athabasca University for similar reasons. I have traveled to over 30 countries and delivered over 200 presentations in the last decade due to my transparent online presence: blogging, writing, teaching. What has Twitter and Facebook done for me? Nothing, really. Other than perhaps attending to my emotive needs of being connected to people when I’m traveling and whining.
Put another way, Twitter/Facebook/G+ are secondary media. They are a means to connect in crisis situations and to quickly disseminate rapidly evolving information. They are also great for staying connected with others on similar interests (Stanley Cup, Olympics). Social media is good for event-based activities. But terrible when people try to make it do more – such as, for example, nonsensically proclaiming that a hashtag is a movement. The substance needs to exist somewhere else (an academic profile, journal articles, blogs, online courses).
Secondly, science and discovery require deep thought, time, and focus. The enormous and complex problems faced by different societies around the world will not be solved by twitter, G+, or social media. As Google’s “in house philosopher” states:
Maybe you, too, are disposed toward critical thinking. Maybe, despite the comfort and security that your job offers, you, too, have noticed cracks in the technotopian bubble.
Maybe you are worn out by endless marketing platitudes about the endless benefits of your products; and you’re not entirely at ease with your contribution to the broader culture industry.
Maybe you are unsatisfied by oversimplifications in the product itself. What exactly is the relationship created by “friending” someone online? How can your online profile capture the full glory of your performance of self?
Maybe you are cautious about the impact of technology. You are startled that our social-entertainment Web sites are playing crucial roles in global revolutions. You wonder whether those new tools, like any weapons, can be used for evil as well as good, and you are reluctant to engage in the cultural imperialism that distribution of a technology arguably entails.
If you have ever wondered about any of those topics, and sensed that there was more to the story, you are on to something. Any of the topics could be the subject of a humanities dissertation—your humanities dissertation.
The technology issues facing us today—issues of identity, communication, privacy, regulation—require a humanistic perspective if we are to deal with them adequately. If you actually care about one of those topics—if you want to do something more serious about it than swap idle opinions over dinner—you can. And, I would venture, you must. Who else is going to take responsibility for getting it right?
This view – deep, contextualized awareness of complex interrelated entities (the hallmark of a a progressive or advancing society) – is strikingly antagonistic to the shallow platitudes and self-serving “look at me!” activities of social media gurus whose obsession is self-advancement. At best, they have become the reality TV/Fox News version of social commentary: lots of hype, lots of attention, void of substance, and, at best, damaging to the cause they purport to advance.