Apparently, it’s the week of anti-social media ranting. Just this morning, I’ve read two articles bashing social media and the way people choose to use it, one in the New York Times, and the other a PSFK piece. On top of that, a group project I’m doing with a few friends is running into organizational snags because one of them quit Facebook (and the others are hardly active). Yet others in my friend and peer group offer unabashed contempt for social media whenever the subject arises, and many of those I know outside advertising seem to wear a sense of pride when espousing their nonuse of social media. I see much of the same in other spheres as well.
It’s the same two arguments over and over again: privacy and/or information overload. In short, we’re giving away too much important information and receiving far too much worthless drivel from everyone else. I call bullshit.
To quote Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic.
“These tools are only as good as the network you create on them.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, but I might not have even tried to say anything like it a few years ago. I too had a strong reaction against every major social media development, and I’ve known the false pride that comes with taking a contrarian’s position towards Facebook and Twitter. But as I studied the potential of social media and the strategic implementations thereof, I learned to exercise some humility. It turns out I didn’t know all there was to know about these social networks, largely because I wasn’t using them. The more I learned about social media methodology, the more I learned what to do with it—and what not to do with it as well.
I wake up every morning at six o’clock so I can hop on Twitter and other news and social aggregators. Why? Here’s a hint: it’s not because I want to know what my friends had for dinner last night (and isn’t that joke, like, five-years-stale by now?). I’ve tuned my social media to give me exactly the kind of information I want. World news, politics, industry updates, and new music are all on my radar right away and I can consume them all from my couch while I sip coffee and warm up my brain for the day.
It’s incredibly therapeutic for me to wake up knowing that more information than one could acquire in a lifetime by oneself is at my fingertips before my eyes can even open all the way. In fact, it’s necessary for me to feel this way. My job is to be informed and inspired constantly, but even if my employment didn’t depend on this, I would still desire these states. Social media offers one of the quickest means to achieve this.
I often hear the “glorified RSS feed” attack leveled at social media, and I object. There’s a level of personality and candidness that social media can and must achieve to be relevant. It solidifies further the personal bonds I’ve made with those in my networks. For instance, I have a few hard-right conservative friends who post some of the most blood-boiling, excruciating, logic-defying sludge I’ve come across, but I value their opinion and I often take a look at the sources they cite because it challenges me to think about why I hold the principles I do and whether or not I know how to back them up. It also helps me understand their reasoning and self better on a personal level, which is something an AP article cannot deliver. Other friends post links to their (often good) work, and I file them away as a potential resource for future projects, as I hope they do me when I self-promote. I can always count on my former Boulder Digital Works classmates to post interesting and relevant information, and I’ve often grown because of the things they’ve shown me. And my friends who offer seemingly meaningless statements of what they’re doing/eating/thinking often do so in a way that makes me laugh, think, and self-reflect—and if they don’t do this, they get blocked.
That’s the beautiful thing about social media. It’s so incredibly easy to curate. In literally five minutes, you can transform your feed from a terrifying festival of inanity into a functioning, practical extension of your digital self. There’s no reason anyone has to put up with annoying garbage. Likewise, there’s no reason other people shouldn’t be allowed to consume annoying garbage in their own feeds.
As for privacy, I understand the concern but find it misplaced. It’s incredibly easy for someone to construct a semi-accurate profile of you through your online persona if you allow them the means to do so. But this seems to imply that one cannot have a social media presence that isn’t damagingly revealing. Quite the opposite is true, in my opinion; it’s all too easy to paint a rose-tinted picture of yourself through selective updating. It’s all in the level of self-control one exercises. My followership doesn’t know what sexual varieties turn my gears, or if I smoke crack, or what my criticisms of my company and clients are. The things I post largely represent the same information anyone would come to know about me after even a cursory encounter in real life. If the information I post poses a privacy risk, it’s because I’ve already considered the implications and assumed that risk. I could easily dial back or scale up my social media output or adopt a pseudonym or create an online alter-ego. Privacy has largely to do with control, and of the most damaging information, the user still remains largely in control.
(Caveat: I do see a potential problem with minors and immature teenagers who don’t yet understand the implications of their online actions, but this is largely a problem of education, where close-minded fuddy-duddyanism is nothing like a solution)
The other information you might give away on a social network like birth date, location, financial credentials, personal taste, and so forth are already given up by you just about anytime you use the internet for a meaningful interaction, unless you have made painstaking effort to obscure your digital presence. Privacy settings can be adjusted, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of readily available articles devoted to helping you maximize your online security without completely abandoning your social presence. I suggest taking a look into them, informing yourself, and weighing your options as opposed to a complete retreat from a communication mechanism that’s clearly not going away anytime soon.
I risk self-righteousness here because I see lots of wonderful potential for social media and I dislike the prideful complaints of those who express such contempt for it without bothering to have much experience. It’s the next evolution in human communication, and it really has helped humans achieve some incredible things. What would the Arab Spring, or Hurricane Sandy disaster relief, or even the nightly news be without social media? We live in an age where we not only have the most information available to us than ever before, but also the greatest ability to spread that information. Surely everyone can find some sort of value in that.