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A World Of Potential – Why Social Media Won't Fix Us.

March 23rd, 2009 | No Comments | Categories: Geek |

screen grab of tweetstats - the top 10 people replied to on twitter by steve lawsonOne of the common mistakes made by people considering the ‘usefulness’ of social media is that value measurements are somehow detached from any acknowledgement of just how much of what human beings do is really screwed up.

What does that mean?

When critics of Twitter, or blogging, or anything else online, pick on group behaviours as evidence that a service is flawed from the get-go, they seem to apply a completely different set of value measurements than they do to their control group – be that ‘conversation’ or ‘newspapers’ or whatever.

As an example, let’s go back to Oliver James and his statement that “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

Now, apart from the misunderstanding about what’s actually going on on Twitter, even if whatever nonsense he’s read on Twitter that made him think that IS what people are doing on there, it’s what those people are doing the rest of the time anyway! All Twitter does is it removes proximity as a factor governing ‘conversation’. It is, quite literally, ‘just chatting’.

And it works almost exactly like conversation in a pub, minus beer and body language:

  • People say things
  • Interesting people get a response and become the focus of the conversation for a while.
  • The longer you stick around, the more likely you are to dig a little deeper and find the people who say great things but in a quieter voice.
  • If you understand the nature of the medium, sensitive people can pick up on those who need help, encouragement and maybe even a phone call or email to help them out.

An arrogant self-obsessed narcissist isn’t going to stop being one just because they get a Twitter account, though they may finally have a statistical representation of just how little their desire to be listened to is reflected in other people’s desire to listen.

Likewise, caring, sharing, friendly, open, generous people aren’t going to suddenly become boorish, self-promoting morons just because that’s how horrible people behave on Twitter.

Anyone who tells you that technology changes anything fundamental about human nature is lying. It presents different ways to manifest both our basest instincts and our greatest altruistic potential. And in the middle, it means that conversations can be had across continents, thoughts and ideas can be shared, swapped and discussed by people from wildly different backgrounds and perspectives, and a greater degree of understanding fostered by those who open themselves up to the possibilities.

Social media doesn’t make narcissists of non-narcissists. It also doesn’t ‘fix’ personality disorders. It does give people a way of conversing openly, and it gives businesses a great way to open an informal window on their process and practices. The kind of thing that used to happen by ‘talking to your customers’ can now happen to clients, customers and interested parties around the world, and can also be eaves-dropped, searched, archived and passed around.

Archiveable conversations are a tremendous social tool, a great business asset, a wonderful creative learning opportunity and have the potential to greatly enhance the amount of information we have at our finger tips.

But we HAVE to remember that potential isn’t action, information isn’t wisdom and technology isn’t the panacea.

Social media is a conduit for information and an environment of potential for enhanced conversation, skill sharing, media discovery and ‘brand reconfiguring’. It can be used to crowd-source opinion, share recommendations and hold businesses to account via the group-response capability.

It can also be used to rant, to abuse, to bore, to indulge narcissism, to whinge, insult, plagarise, etc. etc. But those things weren’t invented by the internet, and won’t die if people stop using Twitter.

So, when academics like Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex, says in The Times “We are the most narcissistic age ever. Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

…I have to wonder what kind of Twitter usage he’s talking about, whether the Twitter users he’s studying are terminally insecure in the first place, and whether he bothered investigating altruistic, “useful” Twitter usage at all?

My guess is ‘probably not’. I’m open to being proved wrong, so I’d love to know what kind of research David Lewis and Oliver James did before coming up with their pronouncements.

C’mon, enough with the luddite observations and unrealistic expectations of how people’s behaviour will change. Let’s see the potential, harness it, and allow people to get excited about the kind of community action and knowledge exchange it fosters, while ignoring those who – as they do in every area of human endeavour – seek to exploit it lazily purely for their own ego-gratifying ends.

Our experience is that the relationships that Lobelia and I have formed via social media platforms over the last year have lead to us talking to, learning from and swapping ideas with some of the smartest, wisest, most interesting, funny and helpful people we’ve ever come across. And we booked a tour through it.

The picture at the top of this post is from tweetstats, and shows the top 10 people I’ve sent @ replies to. All of them are fabulous interesting people. Musicians, journalists, geeks, thinkers… and my mum. :)

Now, tell me again what’s wrong with Twitter?

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No Comments so far ↓

  • Mike R

    One of the unacknowledged limitations of Twitter is this:

    There is no “un-follow” in real life.

    I’ve been meaning to explore this thought for quite a while, but I have to go out now…! Aaargh!

    Will do so when I get a moment.

  • steve

    …no, but there is ‘unlisten’ – you can switch off, turn round, move away…

    I actually think having ‘unfollow’ and ‘block’ be two different events is rather like real life. Is someone is overbearing, dull, self-obsessed, you can often just switch off, turn round, change to talking to someone else (in my pub analogy).

    If they keep sending you unwanted replies, you can block them, just as you can physically remove yourself from the bit of the pub they are in. You might have to get help if they get nasty, but you probably would in a social media setting too…

    Proximity is the biggest divide, but there are definitely parallels with most of the actions :)

  • Greg Collins

    Professional academics start off with a hypothesis and then seek evidence to support/prove that idea. As flawed human beings they are often not that great on finding the evidence in respect of the antithesis and so when the media come calling for a sound bite they spout some bollocks or other in support of their original hypothesis (prejudice). It just amazes me that the media then just repeats, ad nauseum, whatever these so-called “gurus” come up with without putting a blanced view.

    Mike R’s comment is one which rings a chord in me. But my experience is somewhat different; I can think of lots of people, groups and movements that I have unfollowed in real life. It wasn’t always as simple as clicking a button but I’ve dropped friends, deliberately or through neglect, I’ve walked out on groups and I’ve torn up membership cards (are you listening Mr G Brown?)

    My last observation is the possibility that Twitter, for those who engage, offers a partial antidote to “urban alienation” the idea that as we become more urbanised we become more isolated from the people around us. It seems to me that twitter is being used to build up networks of relationship where physical interaction would be difficult, if not impossible, on a regular or frequent basis. We are social creatures but social creatures whose lifestyles can make it very difficult for us to interact with those beyond our immediate circle and beyond a group of people whose outlook is similar to our own. But I think we thrive on, indeed crave, interaction and exchange of ideas with the more remote members of the “tribe”; those who world view is not identical to ours and whose opinions on a range of subjects don’t serve to reinforce our own hypotheses about “How things are”. Twitter does that and it does it in a “time effective” way for people for whom time is the most precious commodity they own.

  • Delia Stearnes

    You are right. I think these anti-twitterites are simply scared of Twitter because they don’t understand it and they feel threatened by it. All I can say is that it has given me a lot of pleasure for a couple of years and that people who didn’t understand what I was on about are just beginning to join in.

  • Benjamin

    There is ‘unfollow’ in real life, and I’ve watched people do it. I had one set of friends who would cut off all old relationships when they moved house. Didn’t update contact details, or reply to emails for anyone for the old location. Seemed odd to me, but it was their way of forcing themselves to build new relationships.

    Similarly, talking with teenagers, they will change phone numbers and block people on IM and email. Seems like an ‘unfollow’ to me.

    What is missing is a ‘drift away’ feature in twitter. Unfollowing in ‘real life’ is uncommon, but ‘drifting away’ from people is common. Twitter makes that process far too course and binary.

  • Documentally

    Great post Steve.

    I feel you have righted some wrongs that had to be said and have done it better than most could have.

    ..”potential isn’t action, information isn’t wisdom and technology isn’t the panacea”..

    I am inspired.

  • alastair

    As you said, Steve, I’m not sure Twitter makes people anything that they aren’t already! It’s been a helpful way for me to pick up various things which I might not have heard about any other way, and I do have the slightly self serving aim of picking up blog traffic (one day I will be invited to speak somewhere, I love doing that kind of thing….need profile though :-) !)

    I suspect that in ‘real life’ (for want of a better phrase) we don’t tend to unfollow or block quite so consciously, more a case of drifting away….

  • Mike R

    I’m a Twitter fan, don’t get me wrong.

    I have to spend a lot of time at home at the moment. Twitter gives me the opportunity to socialise that is absent due to having to stay at home to look after kids etc., and it gives me the opportunity to have convos with people who are far away who I might not normally have the opportunity to talk to. Totally agree with Gregs thoughts on “urban alienation” in that respect, and I think the proximity issue is very important.

    But I guess I mean, that the abscence of body language etc., is a real setback sometimes.

    You *can* un-follow in real life, but it’s a lot harder to do and possibly rightly so. And whilst you can do so, it’s often a justification for what therapists can Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

    Also, I’m conscious that on Twitter or any other social media platform, people do tend to present their best sides. I’ve consciously tried to avoid that, and anyone who follows me knows that I have tried to present myself “warts and all”, which sometimes leads to a rash of “un-follows” But there you are. I’d rather people follow the real me.

    I think twitter is absolutely great for a whole lot of things, but sometimes there is no substitute for face-to-face conversation, and usually Twitter works best when it facilitates face-to-face where possible. Where it’s not possible then it’s the next best thing.

  • Anne Marie McEwan

    ” … conversations can be had across continents, thoughts and ideas can be shared, swapped and discussed by people from wildly different backgrounds and perspectives, and a greater degree of understanding fostered by those who open themselves up to the possibilities.”

    That just about sums it up – beautifully.

  • adrian

    Delia – I think the anti-twitterites also take their stance because it satisfies a certain lazy prejudice about the TERRIBLE STATE OF SOCIETY.

    Depression is increasing, the nuclear family is being eroded, more people are living alone, people are scared of random street violence, the media judges us all by our ability to become celebs overnight… oh, and lots of people are using a variety of methods to chat to strangers via their computers. Cue a handful of rentaquote psychologists and social scientists who conveniently ignore the difference between causation and correlation.

  • Kwame Oh

    We as a species have always had the need to express ourselves, bait the opposition,play devils advocate, tell of our triumphs, and deeds etc.

    Before the birth of the digital age we had institutions such as speakers corner,
    http://en.wikipedia.orgwikiSpeakers%27_Corner
    and i can with all confidence say the debate at its birth would have not been far from views expressed from both sides of this debate.

    Thanks for your post

  • Greg Collins

    For anyone following me on Twitter I’m a f*ckwit at times in real life too. (I blame the late diagnosed Aspi for some of it but that only goes so far….) I say and do crass things, grab the wrong end of the stick, jump to conclusions, get defensive and get angry way too fast… all of which I’ve done on Twitter too.

    The *MAIN* difference on Twitter seems to be there is a little more opportunity for me to take time and space to consider the tone and content of my reply whereas I tend more to shoot from the lip in the cut’n’thrust of face-to-face. Oh yeah, and the difficulty of “going-off-on-one” in 140 characters – 140 characters is a GREAT discipline.

    Mike R (who I’ve just decided to follow) makes a great point about it creating a desire to actually meet the people one tweets with; FOAF’s often turn out to be great additions to my social circle. I can even think of a few people where for instance I’ve lost touch with my old original friend but kept in close touch with their partner post their mutual divorce so the FOAF roles have been reversed.

    Now to try to get my oldest sister who lives hundreds of miles away, and has just got her first email account, turned on to Twitter

  • Steve Uccello

    Well said bro! I might be biased as one of the people who booked you a house concert on your recent tour to the U.S. (which was a total honor and a blast, I might add!) but blaming Twitter for dysfunctional dynamics between people is like blaming musical instruments for terrible music. We control the tools that are at our disposal, not the other way around. I just had a wonderful little chat on Twitter with a jazz radio station manager in Lithuania, at the end of which, they offered to spin some of my music! How cool is that!? Around the globe, I’m meeting and interacting with nice people, who share my interest in music, who can offer me great advice and opportunity (let alone just chatting for fun) and, if I’m lucky, I can offer the same in return! So, whatever…I think, too often, ‘experts’ see the world, and other people, based only on their own tarnished perspectives and the limited window of their direct experiences, forgetting that there are actually folks out there who are capable of maintaining socially healthy relationships in situations (Twitter) where it’s all too easy to display those negative traits (narcissism, insecurity, ect.). Let’s start blaming the player for dissonances, not the instrument. Let’s be accountable for our own actions and proceed with grace.

  • wekarea

    Interesting to see how people naturally group in real life as they do in twitter (in the cross overs – social media cafes). Also pondering there being no ‘unfollow’ (using photoshop at the moment – also no ‘undo’) in real life, although perhaps we are moving away from this delete all to there still being traces.

  • KateTC

    Nice article, I love your writing style and voice.

    This piece made me think of a memory from back in the early 90s. I was 15, and didn’t have many friends at highschool, but had started emailing a guy (18 year old) that I met on a Prodigy bbs. I invited him to my house to meet him, and my parents thought this was a great idea! He was a nice guy, and we kept up an email friendship for a year or so before drifting apart.

    Looking back on that experience now, I think we were all insane and naive. What about sexual predators!? Strangers on the Internet! Certainly, those kinds of creepy people existed before the internet, but social media has given them new tools, anonymity and much easier access to kids than sitting on a park bench at a play ground.

    Easy anonymity can be a really scary thing, sometimes.

  • Brian Roessler

    I am a pretty brand new twitter-er. Before I got my account and started exploring it it was not at all clear to me what was even potentially interesting about Twitter. Not shocking, as very few things reveal how interesting they are before you invest a little energy into them and begin unraveling and taking them apart a bit.

    From the outside, it can really seem like Twitter, Facebook, etc, are nothing but silly narcissistic wastes of time. But Steve and commenters, your points are right on. Its not about the medium, its about harnessing its power to do good work, meet good people, and improve the quality of life. For some folks social media sites may not be useful in those ways, and for them there is no reason to get involved. But it seems odd that INSTEAD they invest so much energy in telling those of us that do get something out of our experience that we must be incurably insecure and/or demented.

  • Jeff Schmidt

    Well put Steve.

    I’m not sure I have the patience to engage with people who- beyond not getting it – are outright hostile towards SM.

    I’m comfortable with it not being “for everyone”. That’s what mediocre TV is for. 😉

    Btw – I don’t know why you replied so much to that @jeffschmidt dude. he’s kind of a tard.