03 October 2016

Social media is neither social nor media

I decided to reverse my idea of "blogging less, tweeting more" in the past few weeks.

My reasons may not apply to you, but I think that a better term for social media would be "alienating deception," as it separates and misleads most users.

This theme may be familiar to long time readers, as I quit Facebook a few times in the past for similar reasons, i.e., Facebook's many-to-many format makes it difficult to know if your having a conversation, who's involved, what's being understood, and when agreement has been reached. (Read this this this and this.)

My change of habit this time has to do with ALL social media, as they share the same weakness.

In The Hobbit, Gollum asks Bilbo to answer the following riddle:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
As Bilbo struggles to think of an answer, Gollum creeps closer, as his prize, should he win, is Bilbo-as-dinner. Bilbo nervously steps back, wracking his brains for an answer, wishing...
... that he had "more time! I need more time! Wait! TIME is the answer!"

Indeed, it's much more common these days that we (people reading this) feel a scarcity of time more than one of material possessions.

Social media is intentionally structured to take as much of your time as possible because its business model depends on matching eyeballs to advertisements. That's why we see clickbait headlines, why your Facebook feed is continuously updating (and nearly impossible to search), and why we are so quickly buried under teeny-tiny Tweets.

Facebook takes 50 minutes per day from the average user, and teens use "media" for 4-9 hours per day. How do they do this at the same time as they are eating, studying or hanging out with friends? By "multi-failing."

For some people, this maelstrom of "information" provides a pleasurable diversion, but it's torture to me. When I was growing up, my mother required that I write thank you notes before I could use the gifts I received for Christmas. Ever since then, perhaps, I've been a stickler for answering nearly every letter, email (for 20 years), SMS and phone call I receive, but others are not of the same mind. This clash of habits leaves me dissatisfied and them indifferent. (Cornelia jokes that we'd never date if we were facebook friends. I'm glad she answered that first email though!)

Although I think we're only starting to understand the social impact of continuously browsing without paying attention, I can see some issues already. Screen-addicts meandering on their bikes; couples "talking" with one eye on their screens; lunching friends picking up and putting down their phones as their "just a quick look" interruptions overlap.

My impression is that people are constantly distracted by FOMO (fear of missing out), such that they cannot pay attention for more than 30 seconds to a real live conversation before they get fidgety and turn to their urgently beeping devices. (Those beeps are intentionally programmed to bring you back to social media by gambling experts; they are also associated with cognitive confusion... and I can't find the links for those claims because they are lost in my social media feed!)
You're the center of the world

Actually, you're not, but you're not even looking.
Put differently, we're directly losing time to social media that spins by and indirectly losing time by the distraction of potential social media when we're doing something else (for me, this manifests as "oh no! I need to answer that comment someone made to me"). Combine these feelings within one person with those of another person, and you get a bad mix of two (or more) people who cannot be present with each other because each one's distraction increases the distraction of the other. (I don't know how many times I've seen two people stutter at each other as one tries to pick up a conversation dropped by the other, just to get distracted themselves and mumble confusion to the other.)

This recent article on the "death of the telephone" has an interesting description of how we've gone from talking to each other about casual, intimate or curious things to texting terse instructions that are often misunderstood but always more distant than their vocal equivalents.

So I'm not just talking about social media but a general problem of people losing contact with their friends as well as strangers as they leave the here and now for a virtual cacophony of casual nothings, missed intentions and empty "likes."

I said something to this effect as Cornelia and I were walking into the local grocery store, and a hippy-type guy overheard us and said "well, you don't have to participate." "Exactly," I replied, "That's why I'm actually cutting back on that..." I've stopped tweeting @aguanomics and have pledged to cut back (100% is the goal. we'll see) commenting on Facebook, LinkedIn and Reddit.*

On the one hand, I can see a real problem for the world if I stop sharing my wisdom on these platforms. On the other, I can't see that my wisdom has made much difference -- especially compared with the rich, interesting and fulfilling conversations I have face to face with students in my office or classes, or the calls I make with friends or skype talks with colleagues. Yes, I can send 20-30 tweets or write 10 comments in the same time as I can make one phone call, but the quality of that phone call is certainly higher than the value of social media likes or impressions. Thus, I am hoping that my gain is also yours, as I reduce my contribution to the cacophony.**

Bottom Line: Let's talk.

* I'm still going to be blogging here (one to many) and writing my newsletter as well as working on Life Plus 2m, so you can opt to receive those emailed updates. If you reply, then we can have a nice one-to-one discussion :)

** My action will not preserve the "commons" of your time from over-appropriation by everyone else, so you'd need to apply the same logic to filtering your space if you want to focus on an event, individual or idea.

Addendum: Just after I finished writing this, I read this piece by Andrew Sullivan -- the world's most famous blogger -- on how social media nearly killed him.

Addendum (16 Oct): The Dutch government is trying to bribe kids to put away their mobiles while they ride bikes. Many "zombies" scroll through facebook as they ride (and yes, it's dangerous). Sadly, I think that initiative will fail, as kids (and many 18+) are far more addicted to the feed than reality.


  1. I would appreciate if you keep this going because as someone you may never meet, I'm still benefiting from your wisdom! We are all only 6 degrees of separation away and you may not see the wider impact you have on the network. Thank you.

  2. Your 'contribution to the cacophony' is very valued. About half of ALL articles shared on Facebook that I click on are shared by you, and the proportion rises when counting those I actually read to the end.

    It's in fact a time saver: some of the same pieces could have been shared by someone else, or I would have stumbled upon them by myself, but instead of doubting whether I should click on them when they are shared by other people, or waste time browsing through the dozen of outlets I am following, I just let you do the job and then select from the output what truly interests me. I should say I am a member of at least 4 FB groups where you post frequently, so there's also a lot to choose.

    I realize curating half of my FB curated reality is a job you were never rewarded for, but I haven't figure out a way to pay back that would be meaningful. Comments are out of the question: they are the supreme time-waster, which would defeat the whole purpose of the entreprise. 'Empty likes' have so far been my favorite tool: they say 'I've been here, I read that, thank you! Now let me think about it, and if I get some new insights on the matter, I'll make sure to share them with my friends after dinner or my co-workers in the break'. Very inefficient as rewards, it seems, if you thought your wisdom hasn't made much difference.

    When I share something myself, I expect the same kind of reaction: read, 'like', go away and talk. People confuse me when they start substantive debates on FB - the same conversation that would take 10 mins a laughter in real life drags on for hours and misses most humourous attempts on FB- why would you comment and thus force me through this ordeal?

    No biggie if you stop posting on FB though, but keep doing it on the blog: I'll just stop by the blog more frequently. I'll half my clicks on fb as a result, and be here more, but I still can't promise to comment. Any suggestions for another reward mechanism?

    1. @Camelia -- actually, my change is to comment less (or not at all in many-many environments), for the reasons you gave. I'll still be sharing, and I'm glad the links are interesting for you :)

      As for rewards... I do like alcoholic red juices :)

  3. You could not have said it better. I challenge you to drill down deeper. I do not engage in any social media, find myself alienated and sometimes lonely, but my phone calls, some slow email and letters resonate. Folks respond in a hungry/starved manner that makes me feel like I hit a (good) nerve. Communication at work is profound when you chat face to face.. I think I see a quiet frustration with the younger generation-tired of empty words.

    Personally, I know I can solve the world’s problems with my sister and a margarita ;)

    As another note…I work in a professional office where the younger generation is checking facebook and other media 20-30 times a day. The older generation (me) doesn’t know how to cope with that..managers don’t know how to limit it, and it does create a divide. During an interview I just was involved in, I was being interviewed, and I noticed that two out of the three folks on the panel were “scrolling” through some form of media as I was speaking. This was unprofessional and I was flabbergasted. The divide is growing…I want to go back to the old days where you put in your solid 8 hours and work actually gets accomplished and you are accountable. You check your “phone” on breaks and on lunch….

  4. My $.02: Focus on real life, genuine person-to-person two-way interaction where everyone (has the chance) to learn something. Please post some of what happens (there) to this blog. Use twitter as an "exclamation point,” not a communication channel. Dump FB.

    1. Good points. I *do* often write posts inspired by those conversations.

  5. Your view of social media is spot on. My view of twitter supports yours but is plebian. Time loss you complain of can be solved: monetize it. To me a good tweet, introduces a point or topic with a linked, well-written article. That tweeter should be rewarded by fines charged to abusers. More than one a day of any tweet regardless of the quality the tweeter should be charged a fine greater in value than the award. Same rule applies to RTs. For the useless tweets such as the all too frequent narcissistic ones the fines should be doubled. Second offense will be tripled and so forth.

    1. Good solution... internalise the externalities ;)

  6. Social media is most effective for broadly disseminating concise information and potentially *starting* conversation. It's least effective in fostering and capturing value from discussion, especially when nuanced.


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