Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Social Networking is not Social

On this day of celebration for the most deep and joyous of all human relationships, a few words about social media. I wrote this in 2008 and it appeared on my old blog here. Nothing has changed, other than even more infringements of privacy. I'm tired of the whole business. I'm even in two minds about staying on Twitter now.

You all know my views on so-called social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. I'm not a fan. I think that they encourage people to provide far too much information about themselves, including personal data that could be used against them. What is the fascination? I don't want to be poked or have a virtual vampire bite me. I don't want to share photos of my friends and family with the world. I could maybe understand it if the photos illustrated a story or provided a snapshot of an event (as often found on blogs and websites). But social networking sites aren't about producing anything worthwhile. They're just about timewasting. And, sadly, they are all about selling you crap. By joining Facebook et al, you are saying that you are happy to give them details about yourself and your friends which they can use to target you for advertising and marketing. Expect a torrent of spam, pop-ups and junk mail.

And there may be a more sinister side to the whole business ...

Stephen Waddington at Rainier PR understands social networking sites. But, as he pointed out on a recent blog post, 'I’m starting to think that social networking sites aren’t a bit social. They’re elitist, where the metrics of success are your number of friends, happy go lucky photos, Funwall postings, backlinks and blog comments.'
He's right. Most kids I know who use Facebook count the number of friends they have on-line (even if they're people they've never even heard of, let alone met) as a measure of their own popularity and self-worth. That's no measure of success. I get a lot of hits on my blog but what do those hits really tell me about the people who've popped by? Nothing at all. Even Grazia magazine, which many would see as a guide to the shallower end of lifestyle choices, has declared Facebook as 'bankrupt'. 'I can't keep up with the friend requests, the requests to confirm how we know each other, the requests to tell you I like you, the requests to tell you I want you to tell me what movies you want to tell me about, etc.', they concede. 'I just find it crazy and the pace is so fast that very little of substance is being done. Folks have just opted in to another out of control inbox... I'm opting out.'

Paul Tero, at marketing company Nixon McInnes, believes that social networking is only social if people use it to meet people and get out and socialise. He goes on to point out that, 'Any interaction (on-line) is usually via words only. And according to a 1971 study by Albert Mehrabian, the words we use in a conversation only account for 7% of our decision as to whether or not we like the other person. 38% is from tone of voice and 55% from body language. So if we interact only via words, we are squandering a large part of our natural gift for communication.' Social networking is actually denuding our communication skills. And it allows deceit, lies and downright nastiness to hide behind a happy, smiling profile.
But is it worth getting all steamed up about? Surely it's all just a bit of fun, isn't it? Ah, would that it were, would that it were (said in my best Robert Robinson voice). Tom Hodgkinson (of How to be Idle fame) has written an excellent little booklet called We want everyone - Facebook and the new American Right (Parts of it were published in The Guardian in January). In the booklet, he explains that Facebook is nothing more than cynical, information-gathering and advertising-targeting software wrapped up in the guise of 'How to share your life with the world and appear to have more friends'. It's no secret. Tom hasn't spent years in deep cover to get this information. It's all freely available - but people just don't bother to go and look for it. They just blindly sign up to these sites because their mates have all signed up. The people behind Facebook are not the fun-loving hippy geeks you'd imagine them to be and they know a bit about what makes you tick:

'Although the project was initially conceived by media cover star Mark Zuckerberg, the real face behind Facebook is the 40-year-old Silicon Valley venture capitalist and futurist philosopher Peter Thiel. There are only three board members on Facebook, and they are Thiel, Zuckerberg and a third investor called Jim Breyer from a venture capital firm called Accel Partners (more on him later). Thiel invested $500,000 in Facebook when Harvard students Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskowitz went to meet him in San Francisco in June 2004, soon after they had launched the site. Thiel now reportedly owns 7% of Facebook, which, at Facebook's current valuation of $15bn, would be worth more than $1bn.'

So, some people are making big bucks out of you having lots of pseudo friends, eh? The plot thickens ...

'Thiel's philosophical mentor is one René Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behaviour called mimetic desire. Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel's virtual worlds: the desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook. Girard is a regular at Thiel's intellectual soirees. What you don't hear about in Thiel's philosophy, by the way, are old-fashioned real-world concepts such as art, beauty, love, pleasure and truth. The internet is immensely appealing to neocons such as Thiel because it promises a certain sort of freedom in human relations and in business, freedom from pesky national laws, national boundaries and suchlike. The internet opens up a world of free trade and laissez-faire expansion. Thiel also seems to approve of offshore tax havens, and claims that 40% of the world's wealth resides in places such as Vanuatu, the Cayman Islands, Monaco and Barbados. I think it's fair to say that Thiel, like Rupert Murdoch, is against tax. He also likes the globalisation of digital culture because it makes the banking overlords hard to attack: "You can't have a workers' revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu".'

(Read the whole feature here).

Thiel and his ilk are outright unashamed capitalists who believe that work and the acquisition of wealth are the most important things in life. They are nearly all neo-conservative Right wingers (remember the debacle about 'No gays allowed on Facebook' a few months ago? Guess where that originated?) These are not the sorts of people I want to associate with, let alone give my money to. But millions of you do by answering the ads that pop up on Facebook. Your beautifully crafted on-line profile provides their marketing people with the sort of data that allows them to target you (and your friends) unmercifully with stuff that will appeal. By January 2009, Facebook will have over 200 million active members. If even a tiny percentage respond to the adverts and pop-ups, the men behind Facebook make even more millions. And with their views on tax, you can be sure that only a tiny proportion of your money will ever be recycled back into the economy or social welfare systems.

I guess it could be argued that my blog is a form of social networking - but I don't use it that way. I use it as a showcase for my writing and my art. It performs the same role as a website - but with more frequent updates. It's got me some work and, more importantly, I've made new friends who I have gone on to meet for real in FleshSpace.

FleshSpace ... I may have to trademark that.

And, as a final warning klaxon, just remember that the recent glut of connected suicides in Bridgend, Wales is possibly connected to a social networking pact. Certainly, it's an avenue that the police are investigating. Isn't that a worrying development? As Stephen Waddington says, 'Is this real life moving into a digital sphere? Or something more sinister ...' All I know is that the term 'private life' includes the word 'private' for a good reason.

I'll leave you in the capable hands of Tom Hodgkinson again:

'For my own part, I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook doing something useful, such as reading books. [...] I don't want to retreat from nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It's free, it's easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it's called talking.'

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