I’ve been writing a lot about the pervasiveness of social media. We’ve got Keith Olbermann of MSNBC temporarily suspending his Twitter account because of some spat he got into. We’ve got former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin launching policy statements from her Facebook page. We’ve even got a Hollywood film, The Social Network dramatizing the founding of Facebook. The film received widespread critical praise and will probably be an Oscar contender next year.
So it seems fitting that Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has landed on the cover of Time Magazine as Person of the Year. Time’s cover story does an excellent job of profiling Zuckerberg and the Facebook phenomenon going back to before a high school Zuckerberg was offered about a million dollars by America Online and Microsoft to develop a software idea he had. He turned down the money to attend Harvard. (It wouldn’t be the last time he turned down money on some principle, saying no to Yahoo who wanted to buy Facebook for a king’s ransom.)
Lev Grossman’s article touches on an aspect of Facebook that is perhaps not so pretty.
But there is another danger, which is that instead of feeling forced to share, we won’t be able to stop ourselves from sharing — that we will willingly, compulsively violate our own privacy. Relationships on Facebook have a seductive, addictive quality that can erode and even replace real-world relationships. Friendships multiply with gratifying speed, and the emotional stakes stay soothingly low; where there isn’t much privacy, there can’t be much intimacy either. It’s like an emotional Ponzi scheme, where you keep putting energy in and getting it back tenfold, even though the dividends start to feel a little fake.
An article published earlier this year in European Psychiatry presented the case of a woman who lost her job to a Facebook addiction, and the authors suggested that it could become an actual diagnosable ailment. (The woman in question couldn’t even make it through an examination without checking Facebook on her phone.) Facebook is supposed to build empathy, but since 2000, Americans have scored higher and higher on psychological tests designed to detect narcissism, and psychologists have suggested a link to social networking. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 81% of its members have seen a rise in the number of divorce cases involving social networking; 66% cite Facebook as the primary source for online divorce evidence. Openness and connectedness are all well and good, but someone should give two cheers at least for being closed and disconnected too.
This commentary fascinated me in that I had noticed this myself anecdotally. In the case of Twitter, for example, although supposedly full of people interested in 140 character exchanges, I found instead a lot of folks who only wanted to talk about themselves. (Now will it make me a hypocrite when I click publish and the existence of this article is immediately announced to the Twitterverse? I think not, only because if you do engage with me about the article, you’ll find me more than happy to engage back.)
But where I think Mr. Grossman might have given more consideration is the difference between people and businesses. Facebook takes the intimacy that once existed between people face-to-face and computerizes it. It creates the strange paradox of being connected with people while you are totally alone physically. It, in a sense, removes us from true intimacy. However, in the case of business, I believe we are seeing the opposite.
Businesses that were once, by necessity at arms length, now can almost reach out and touch you. Gary Vaynerchuk described this development effectively in an online keynote I attended a few weeks ago. Vaynerchuk said that years ago, had he complained about a beer he was drinking, and suddenly the beer company spokesman knocked on his door offering to help, he’d probably have slammed the door in the guy’s face. But now, we welcome (and even expect) our complaints about brands to be personally answered by the manufacturer via Twitter or Facebook or some other social media venue.
In his Time article, Lev Grossman correctly points out Facebook’s near ubiquity on the web whereby you can be just about anywhere on the web now and give a Facebook thumbs up (called a “like”) to what you are viewing. What Grossman doesn’t do completely is connect the dots on how Facebook and social media in general is creating relationships between consumers and businesses. We are undergoing a rewrite on how marketing works.
Then again, maybe I’m too tough on Grossman. Near the article’s conclusion, he shares Zuckerberg’s own vision of the future which shows a clear understanding of the impact of social media on business:
And [Zuckerberg is] just getting started. What looks like a meteoric rise to the rest of us, he sees as an opening act. Because now that Facebook has scaled up to a species-level event, the real work can start: taking a 550 million–person network out on the highway and seeing what it can do. … “I think the next five years are going to be about building out this social platform,” Zuckerberg says, on a long walk around Facebook’s neighborhood in Palo Alto in December. “It’s about the idea that most applications are going to become social, and most industries are going to be rethought in a way where social design and doing things with your friends is at the core of how these things work. If the last five years was the ramping up, I think that the next five years are going to be characterized by widespread acknowledgment by other industries that this is the way that stuff should be and will be better.”
Far be it from me to put words in Mark’s mouth, but to put things another way, our world will continue to move from product based, to people based. It won’t be what can I sell you. It will be how can I solve your problem. That in a nutshell is social media done right.