Social Media is Us, and Using Us

Oh yes, you’re reading a personal blog post/rant about social media just like it’s 2006 all over again. So queue up ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ by Shakira on your iPod, shout out “verryyy nice” like Borat, and add some glitter graphics to your Myspace page because here we go. 

It was of course in 2006 when all this social media madness really took off. Twitter was launched, Facebook opened up to the public, and YouTube was sold to Google all in this very year. It was a good year with myself and many others seeing social media as a wonderful thing. We eagerly signed up to each new social network and at the time it seemed like a new one was launching every week. We thought this new ‘social graph’ as it was called back then would bring us all closer together. Well, we did get closer but unfortunately, we now have no escape from each other. Truth be told we are suffocating each other which is not so surprising if you think about your social graph as trying to follow the life story of hundreds and in some cases thousands of people. It’s absolutely exhausting.

I’ve personally felt that exhaustion every time I ‘pull to refresh’, which ironically every time I do I feel significantly less refreshed! Quite the opposite actually. That’s because social media is an endless well of crap, thrust into our brightly light palms, all day, every day. Right now there is much debate over the source of that well, AKA the news feed, and the many algorithms that drive it. Tech companies were so obsessed with applying artificial intelligence to our social interactions it seems they didn’t use any actual intelligence in their deployments. Whoops! Now we must face the roughly annual exercise of being outraged by the result of this. It goes something like this:

  1. Social media company (typically Facebook) does something bad
  2. There’s an uproar usually followed by a congressional hearing
  3. We all agree this is bad, and we should feel bad about it
  4. Nothing changes
  5. Rinse and repeat next year

Of course, if you’re waiting for the government to fix the issue I’m sorry to say you’ll be waiting for a very long time. One simply needs to look at the regulation of big tobacco and phone companies. It will take years if not decades for the regulation to come. With the pace that technology moves it’s probably safe to say that in a few years the problems will be significantly different than those of today. For example, right now it’s about the challenge of ‘fake news’ but tomorrow it might be about fake people. If they can machine learn my purchasing behaviors it won’t long before they can machine learn entire personalities. They’ll be indistinguishable in both their appearance and their interactions with these sites. And again thanks to those mysterious algorithms I expect fake people, the hallow puppets of some force with an agenda, will command massive followings. Your aunt posting anti-vax memes will be considered cute in comparison. 

Let’s get back on track before drifting out too far into the online dystopia of tomorrow. Today, and for each of us personally,  the solution is literally in your own hands. It’s sitting right there on your little device staring back at you each day. You take the action to open that app, to post that #humblebrag, or share that article. You feed the beast not the other way around. While these companies certainly drive your addiction with machine-learning precision and every trick in the book you are ultimately in control. Although I worry much like alcohol addiction it’s just not that easy to kick. Those that want to quit know it’s bad for them, they know it can make them unhappy, and it can cause pain for others around them. Those that want to stop plan to, but first just one more drink. For old times’ sake.

It does make me wonder, and I see some early signs of this already, will humanity experience a bit of a bifurcation with regard to all these social media services. Where half the population sits all day swiping and liking and the other group disconnects completely. When I look at my own social graphs this is what I see. The addicts, posting every single day and sharing every detail of their life, regardless of how insignificant. I have seen many do this for almost a decade without pause. And the others who have left their social media circles by either completely deactivating or simply letting them collect cyber dust. I’m somewhere in between, having deleted every social app from my phone some time ago and no longer jumping on the social media hamster wheel daily to share my life’s minutia.  I last tweeted over a year ago and don’t feel like I’ve missed out on much. I now read a lot more and have time to write long rambling posts like the one you’re reading now. Having worked in this industry for many years I’d like to think I’m more aware of how these apps use me, and as a marketer, I’m certainly aware of how I use them. It’s a bit tough to sit in the middle of creating value or having value extracted from me, to be honest. 

I’m going to wrap this rant with a quote a friend once told me. He was ‘old school’ in the sense that he never really used any of these social apps. When I asked “Why?” his response was simple. “Every time I open Facebook I feel like it takes a little piece of me that I’ll never get back”. He was an artist and non-technical but nevertheless, he couldn’t have been more correct. He didn’t need to understand the nuance of all those data points collected with each page load. He didn’t need the likes or followers to quantify his own self-worth and stature in some unknown algorithm. Instead, he determined his own worth through his work and ultimately the output of his art. That’s a beautiful thing. Especially when you compare it to many of us who are merely finger painting within the very tiny spaces these social apps allow us to occupy. 

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