Archive for November, 2011

what’s wrong with social media?

November 28, 2011

Okay, so the title has a rather laboured double-meaning. It could be a challenge to naysayers or it could be that I’m about to answer it. Actually, it means that I think there’s something wrong with it, but I’m not sure what it is.

I’m also fairly confident that there’s something wrong because it’s new. People don’t really know how to use it, just like people didn’t know what tone to use in an e-mail or what to say to an answering machine.

I’m also not being entirely honest, because I do have an idea of the difficulty that we’re having in working out what to do with the New: it’s the size of it. I’m sure I’ve said this before in some blogging iteration or other (and I’m sure, if I were versed in any way in web lore or research or anything of that ilk it would be clear to me that the horse I’m beating has been turned into glue or something by now), but this is a weblog, not an opinion piece for the Times, so I’ll carry on…

What was I saying? Oh yes. The size of it. The internet is big. As big as the Hitchhiker’s Guide says that the universe is big. And there are loads of people using it, typing away at blogs that are saying what loads of other people have said loads of times before (for example). Here are some other things they are doing, and why I think they’re wrong:

Telling you about what they bought on amazon: I’ve got the least concern about this, actually, because it tells you the number of reviews that the rating of a product is based on. If one person didn’t like it, and this was because it was delivered two days late and didn’t fit, I can write this off. If fifty people say that it made them look like movie stars and didn’t shrink when washed on Hot, then I know I’m on to a winner. Of course on amazon, it would help if the sort-by-ranking took the number of ratings into account as well…

Which brings me onto the real problem:

Telling you about their horrible consumer experiences on facebook/twitter/etc.: I don’t mind a bit of venting, and indulge on occasion myself. But from my perspective as someone who might buy something, it’s very difficult to get a rounded view of a product/service/etc. on these sorts of sites. A facebook update or a tweet is, by nature, anecdotal (unless you’re announcing the results of your extensively researched data). I could tweet for five minutes about not getting my food at a restaurant, and nothing’s going to force me to tweet in minute six when my five-star meal arrives…especially as I’ll be eating it. And from a professional perspective, it’s basically a lose-lose: don’t give people the space to comment and you look aloof and old-fashioned; do, and you’ll have to keep people happy 24/7 by jumping on negative posts and proving your exemplary customer service before the comments get retweeted.

And this brings me to something else:

Slagging off their nearest and dearest: The main issue with the last item is of transience and permanence. No one is quite sure whether to consider their social media offerings as written on stone tablets or as an aside to a friend over coffee. (Okay, or somewhere in between.) A few of my facebook friends definitely consider it to be the latter–I wonder if this fb perspective explains the short life of the ‘This is what you were saying a year ago’ feature… Off-handed tweets (particularly authored by drunk celebrities) can survive well beyond their lifespan on the twitter servers. And this is another ambiguity caused by size: huge ‘places’ like facebook and twitter can lull people into a sense of ‘safety in numbers’, whether this leads someone to think ‘my ex will never see this’, ‘no one’s going to check whether this is exactly accurate’, ‘a future employer would never find this photo’…

Here’s the rub:

Believe what they read on social media sites: From my examples so far, this may seem pretty banal. And when I say that there’s an aspect to it that’s not banal, the first thing I think of is Arab Spring and the Egyptian babies named Facebook. So just to clarify: through none of this am I saying that social media is fundamentally ‘bad’ or anything like this. Heck, I enjoy it an awful lot. What I am saying here, however, is that it may have the tendency to drive us toward subjective, anecdotal, unreflective interpretations of events, people, things.

You may guess that I’m straying from the dress that I may or may not buy on amazon and into more serious territory. I’m worried about subjectivism in that I don’t have to put a disclaimer on my opinions versus facts (unless it’s a case of getting sued). I’m worried about my little story, which I might have slightly exaggerated because I was upset, going viral and ruining someone’s reputation. And I’m worried about my instantly broadcasted experience influencing people’s ideas when I’m not sure what has just happened myself.

Frankly, I’m slightly uncomfortable with my own opinion because I seem to be wanting a clearing house, a publisher, of the web. I seem to be arguing for an ivory tower filter to tell us what is Good and what is Bad, like a pre-war Oxbridge snob.

But what I’m really wanting is for as all to 1) pick our own clearing houses by finding what will give us the most accurate, honest and quality-assured information; 2) understand better the context in which we are operating when we engage with different types of social media (which will probably only come with time); 3) take being a content-creator seriously–even if this just means making it clear when you’re not being serious.

And here’s what I want websites to do: 1) provide context when showing people’s comments, rankings, votes, etc.–this is just responsible data collection; 2) please, please don’t quote a couple tweets as if they represent everyone who ever lived–a tweet isn’t even as reliable as ‘the man in the street’; 3) instigate the defining of the context of social media as a whole.

If this is going to be the biggest conversation ever, we’re going to need a few new rules.