This is a response to the popular article by Umair Haque, entitled The Social Media Bubble, posted on the Harvard Business Review blogs last week. At face value Haque makes a high-level criticism of the internet, especially social media…
I’d like to advance a hypothesis: Despite all the excitement surrounding social media, the Internet isn’t connecting us as much as we think it is. It’s largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.
…which is a guaranteed ticket to, what, over 200 comments already. It’s fresh to hear someone speak against an institution that is almost universally adored, and for which it is offensive by default to degrade. People used to act that way about churches and royals.
I agree with most of what Haque says, it’s true that interaction between internet users is predominantly shallow. Yes, there is a lot of hate too. Of course, nasty actors are exploiting online data to gain power and money. We know this. Give the world a new toy that is virtually free and many of them will use it for banal or evil gains. The Nepalese have a lovely expression fitting this, I learned it over Jack Daniels in a jungle resort in Nepal last year: bandar koh hat ma nariwal: “give the monkey a coconut”, that is to say, give any immature-minded person something to hold and he will just bash it until it breaks.
Enough metaphor, here’s the thing: the internet, as with any tool, can enhance lives if it is used well. It’s that simple. I can relate to this personally. I first knew that I wanted to make the internet a bigger part of my life when, quite by surprise, it indeed lead me to the kind of deep, meaningful relationships which Haque claims not to exist. At the time, I was invited by a friend to join a private discussion forum and I did so mainly through voyeuristic curiosity. I expected to find myself amongst a horde of weirdos. When I joined the discussion I then realised that these people shared many of my interests so that “weak” connection was made. But then I met them in real life and the penny really dropped. Many are now great friends, some of whom I’ve done good work with too. Indirectly, I found my wife through those same people. That’s deep, that’s meaningful. Much of the important stuff may have happened offline but it was the social web that facilitated it.
Leaping gracelessly back into analogy now, look at TV. Thousands of channels of data cascading incessantly into our living rooms, bedrooms, bars, the scale of it all is cosmic and most of it is tat. We threw our television away years ago. Most people choose to watch crap, often for several hours of every day. That’s not to say we don’t sit down to watch TV programmes, we just watch what we want when we want it, (online, as it happens). It educates and entertains us, that’s fulfilling. So it is with any technological novelty, if you cannot rework it to improve your life, bin it, it will not be offended.
Here’s another extract, from Haque’s summary:
The promise of the Internet wasn’t merely to inflate relationships, without adding depth, resonance, and meaning. It was to fundamentally rewire people, communities, civil society, business, and the state — through thicker, stronger, more meaningful relationships.
Perhaps there has not been as much of that “rewiring” conspicuously occurring online as optimists may have hoped. They may have been unrealistic. But it has happened and is increasingly happening. Here are some examples, attached to specific points in the HBR article:
Exclusion (“…rarely are the gaps between differences bridged.”) – take geography as a gaping, enduring societal bridge. Before the web, people met at their local church, club or boozer only because it was nearby; it took effort to travel to gatherings around shared interests. Now we can converse with strangers who care for our ideals regardless of where they live. My wife, for one, would be evidence of this.
Value (“If [Internet relationships] were valuable, perhaps people (or advertisers) might pay … to enjoy them) – advertisers pay dearly for online relationships thath provide vital value, but the best examples of this have not used the old advertising model. Successful organisations nurture relationships with their audience members then ask those people to pay for, promote, or provide feedback on, their products. That’s payment and reward.
Disempowerment (“…we’d expect to see … PR agencies, recruiters, and other kinds of brokers [disintermediated]. [Instead] they’re creating legions of new ones.”) – as much as I’d love to see many of these agents (like me, to my shame) disappear, it’s true that many are still here. However, smart people and organisations are now empowered by social tools to walk straight past these intermediaries, into success. These people are the equivalent of the natural salesman at the local showroom, who knows everyone in town by first name. Online, these are the $0 marketing-spend success stories.
Lastly, and in summary…
The internet itself isn’t disempowering government by giving voices to the traditionally voiceless; it’s empowering authoritarian states…
The geeks may not yet have inherited the earth from the state overlords but you know what, some people have spoken up and found support from their peers. People have gathered together via social media and, at least in part, caused products to be recalled or relaunched, galaxies mapped, a US President elected…
In short, some people are doing good, some are doing wrong and most are doing very little. For the sake of the bad few, what should we do, turn off the internet? I’d love to see someone build another international forum big enough to accommodate us all and virtually free to attend.