It is a very sad fact about our world that it is most often through conflict and disaster that we discover the most about ourselves and our connections to others. I have felt this palpably in recent months and years as I’ve watched the ebb and flow of so many conversations, about things both mundane and monumental. The hardest is the desperation and shock of people in peril and the loved ones that worry about them. In the eye of these storms, social media emerges as a kind of curiosity: look at what people do! Tools are launched and then find their unique purpose. If the founders are lucky, maybe a global phenomenon. Anyone can have a voice (whether anyone listens is another matter). We can connect to people in many places. That’s our power of now.
Is social media about sociality, or something else entirely?
Social media is real-time. It’s raw. It’s usually un-edited and un-flltered. It asks us to make our own decisions about which news to follow, about which voices to promote, and which to marginalize. The editors of these new media are mostly individuals, each deciding what is relevant or meaningful. Too frequently they forget to think about the audiences they might draw, and instead create from their own passions and inspirations. This is slightly what makes it special in a culture so inundated with well-crafted brand messages from corporations and governments alike. Social media can allow the authenticity and connection that we sometimes feel are missing from our heavy-duty lives. Perhaps even more importantly, social media allows us to connect for a huge variety of reasons, in sometimes quite unexpected ways.
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One of my favorite things about the Internet is my ability to connect with friends I have collected all over the world. I’m one of those people who moves rather a lot. A lot of us do. One of my grandmothers, born in 1904, moved to California in the 1920s and used to stay in touch with her Kansas relatives via long chain letters that were passed from person to person. Each person in the chain read the letters from everyone else, then added their own missive, and the whole process started again. I tried reading one or two of the letters as a teenager, but they were so full of small, relevant-only-to-the-people-involved details that I quickly put them aside. Such is also the downside of social media.
A recent meme in cyborg anthropology is a notion called ‘ambient intimacy’. It refers to a murky soup of connections that we all maintain without paying a whole lot of explicit attention to any of them. It’s just like scanning headlines in your favorite newspaper (digital or otherwise), like a background process of collecting small bits of information about people’s lives. Details that no one thinks to share outside of spouses and family are now a personal history viewable by a mish-mash of family, friends, colleagues, ‘Internet friends’, acquaintances and people that I might know. If only I could resolve their digital identity to a physical one. Out in the world I find that I notice when people are making eye contact with me, so accustomed am I that everyone walks with eyes cast down, focused on some kind of screen.
This is not a judgment on technology, nor a denial of its potential… I would lump these problems into the category of ‘unintended consequences’. Social media is ‘sandbox’ software, a category that includes a range of experiences that are highly emergent in nature (think a video game like the Sims vs. games that explicitly guide the player through a narrative). There are connections and reconnections, supportive ideas and divisive ones. There are echo chambers of the self-selecting and selected-for-you varieties. Like a city, the Internet has good neighborhoods and bad ones, vandals and gadflies and crazies, and the most beautiful examples of community that many of us have seen.
If we are all so connected, why don’t I feel connected?
I have been experimenting these last couple of years with not having a cell phone. Or at least, not having one that is consistently charged, or that I consistently check voicemail for. I am online a lot, I figure, and if people want to get in touch, it seems easy enough to do. And yet, so often I have this sense that friends and I are like ships passing in the night (as we often are, especially if many of your friends live in different time zones). Keeping up with where your friends are hanging out today is tricky… Should I call them on the phone? What if they’re busy? What if I interrupt? A text? Can I explain what I need to in a text? IM? They’re not on, or they’re invisible or busy so people won’t bother them with IMs when they’re just checking their emails. Oh, right, no one’s using email anymore… I should check Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Quora. There I find a trail of digital foot-prints, but at the end of the road, no I’m available icon. I book an appointment via email or voice mail, so that I can actually speak to my friend. Feel slightly like a cyber-stalker.
Oh, well, I know a lot of people. Perhaps I can find someone else to help me think about the sticky situation I am pondering… but where? How? Do I really want all the Quora, Facebook or LinkedIn people I connect with to know this little piece of consternation I am experiencing? When I was doing online game research, one or two guild members used me as a personal advisor, despite us not knowing each other outside the context of a game and our avatars. In case you’re wondering, it is uncommon that my various forays online result in physical meetings, unless there are specific goals (dating, couch surfing, conferences, networking) involved. I certainly don’t invite random Internet people over, yet that is sometimes the feeling I have, that there are poor souls out there who just need some connection. I wish I could invite them for dinner, but we scarcely do that anymore.
It’s very common in difficult times to for people to start believing that we are soon going somewhere very bad, perhaps in someone’s handbasket, perhaps down the slippery slope of simulated realities, or other grim possibilities our physical lives afford. I mentioned in an earlier post how shaken I was by the recent earthquakes in New Zealand. And now, a mere handful of weeks later, Japan also devastated. #PrayForJapan is a constant meme, as are the pleas connect to people in Japan who might have information about loved ones. We mourn together, because we have become one global consciousness. Or perhaps we always were, although slightly lacking the communication options that now make these interactions so easy and simultaneous.
What’s the way forward?
It occurs to me that in our discussions about social media we need to be more aware of a few things.
- These technologies still in their infancies (in current incarnations), though we have reached a certain temperamental pre-pubescence with other possibilities like e-mail and forums. We probably can’t even begin to imagine the possibilities that will be available even just five years from now.
- Even if we did know exactly what technologies will be available to us, it is impossible to predict exactly what people might do with it. This is the beauty of unintended consequences, when humans do things more wonderful and caring than we can possibly anticipate. That means we’re evolving, and that’s a good thing.
- One can be simultaneously techno-philial and skeptical about efforts to throw all of our eggs in one or two baskets. Let’s imagine the future we want and work backwards from there. Sure, take some inspiration from Facebook or Twitter, but don’t feel like you have to replicate them, or even use them, if you feel like your social and information needs are otherwise met. There will be more and better options coming soon enough. We should be crafting some collective visions, and keeping those commitments, recession economics or not.
- We are reaching a point in our technological evolution where we need to make a massive shift. For many years passionate people have imagined and created incredible technologies that delight us and show promise of easing and expanding our lives. However there is a fundamental problem with this approach. Conceiving technologies and then trying to find audiences for them (build it and they will come) is slowly but surely falling away to approaches that understand people first, then build technologies that adapt to people, rather than demanding that we adapt to them. Because what happens is that in the technology-centric world, we develop dysfunctions to handle our dysfunctions, and that becomes a big mess of complexity very quickly.
- Attention and clout are currencies of interaction. These things have not changed in several centuries. We will give attention to get attention (online or otherwise). In a data-driven world, our attention will be gathered willingly or otherwise, and we might even be able to monetize some of it, in an expert filtering type way. Information literacy will allow us to quickly scan for clout (what your social media stats or search engine rankings say about you) separate useful and not-useful, instead of floundering in information chaos. We do favors (building, writing, connecting, linking) with the fuzzy expectation that some kind of karma might pay it back or forward. We slightly don’t care as we feel our cause (sometimes just growing the Internet) gaining momentum, and can tangibly see cause and effect in beautiful collective action.
William Shakespeare said that if anyone could look at the seeds of today and accurately predict the future, they should ‘speak unto’ him. I have a prediction: there will be unintended consequences than we can’t even begin to imagine. Some will stick, some will not. We just have to listen and watch. Something world-changing might be happening, but we won’t know for a while yet.
In the meantime, perhaps Prime Minister Edeno and others will get some peaceful sleep sometime soon, bolstered by the lullaby that is global love and solidarity. We connect because we can, we can because we connect.
Guest Author: Lisa Galarneau Ph.D. is a User Experience Researcher (Virtualization) Volt at Microsoft
Image by katypang