I sit on the train and look around as I’m rattled and jarred out of London Euston. Head down, absorbed, I see a woman on her iPhone flicking through pictures of guys on Tinder, a teenager is on Facebook whilst the guy next to me is checking out his Twitter feed. The Guardian and Evening Standard lay untouched on the table, responding to the occasional shake of the carriage. Picked up with a nod, and quickly set aside.
The ‘cultural trend’ of social networking cannot be ignored, it is everywhere you go. It seems we can’t help ourselves, we love the fact that, at the touch of a fingertip, we can see what our celebrity idols are doing thousands of miles away or what our friends got up to the other night. You experience it but live in a different city, even a different country. It’s salacious, curious, instinctively, instant and feeds our need as humans to communicate and share.
But I’m uneasy about social networking. The original premise of online social interaction has been eschewed, slowly but surely it has been distorted and mutated from self-expression to self-promotion. People are becoming shameless in their need provoke a response. The mundane, day-to-day takes on a reality TV-like significance to users. I guess you could compare it to the front page of the Daily Mail. It’s there for one reason and one reason only, to feed your curiosity. Like dangling bait for a fish we can’t but help ourselves in trying to take a bite. Those at Facebook and Twitter quickly tapped into combining our incessant need to socialise on any level and combined it with the seamless real-time updates available to the internet. It is perfectly designed with one intention – addiction.
I began writing this believing that I could easily argue that social networking was an unhealthy phenomenon. I was certain it would be straight cut, simply analysed and provide an obvious conclusion. But the more I see of that original idea the more it becomes welcome. Twitter has been used to raise money for charity, to warn people of natural disasters, to share events with family. Our connections have never been so varied and insightful. Despite the mindless babble we still find articles, videos, music, films, jobs, and events that interest us. LinkedIn to Pinterest, Tumblr to Twitter, we have it all. Social networking has given us a wealth of information otherwise lost in the maelstrom of daily life. We can build images of people based on their likes, interests and discussions, forming what would have taken years of daily physical interaction. Temporal and spatial barriers have been removed to give us a global connectivity. We can apparently know everyone and anyone.
But this is where I start to struggle with the positivity of the slick CEO’s that eloquently encapsulate those concepts in their speeches and companies ideals. There is a significant downside to the apparently happy story of the social network. I believe that two other trends have accelerated the problem. Firstly, the commercialisation of the social network itself, and secondly, apathy caused by increasing exposure.
Where better to start with these ideas than Twitter. As of the 1st of January 2014 646 million users were registered on Twitter. Compare that to the 7.2 billion people who live in the world today. Of that 7.2 billion only 39% have the ability to use the internet. Working this down to the 2.8 billion that have access, 22% use Twitter. Now, crude as that calculation is that’s a ballpark of 1 in 5 people who have access use it. And even if you don’t use it, you will probably know someone who does. It truly is a tremendous number.
In turn this has affected business on a global scale – there has been a rush to convert and have your brand online and mobile. Where there is access to people, there is the potential to profit and companies cannot resist the trend to settle into a new era of manipulating social networking where the line between the ‘social’ and the ‘commercial’ becomes blurred. Twitter and Facebook have sold out to business, and what may have begun as a social network has turned into a commercial bear pit. Even the co-founder of Twitter Evan Williams freely admitted that:
Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility … but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network.
Here is a man who has become a billionaire from Twitter’s floatation as a viable business. He took the idea and let the market reap the rewards. There is no ‘insight’ that was discovered deep inside the cavernous expanses of the Twitter offices, it was cold, hard cash. He described social networking as a ‘no brainer’ for ‘social animals’. More poignantly he also claims:
People like other people … so hearing from them, and being able to express yourself to people you care about in a really simple way, is fun, and it can be addictive.
He’s right, it becomes addictive. This word, along with obsessive, and compulsive is usually disorder related. And it’s shocking to think that he can be so candid about it. Like sex, drinking, and drugs the social network has its origins in our basic desires. It allows us to express ourselves and do so with like-minded people, or so we think. No, unlike being an alcoholic or drug addict social networking won’t kill you. What social networking does is far more nuanced, far more subtle. It takes your life, your essence as a person, and makes it into a product.
So at Twitter and Facebook what may have begun as an innocent idea of connecting people together quickly gathered speed and snowballed into the global phenomenon we have today. With that exposure and success also comes investment. In the world of the social network selling data has become just as relevant as human connectivity. And so, in the words of Evan Williams, they ‘follow[ed] a hunch, but never assume[d] where it w[ould] go’. What you essentially have is a business where the information you provide is sold back to you via commerce. You may think you are just innocently connecting to friends or celebrity idols, but what is actually occurring is your very opinions and interests are being analysed and absorbed for the consumer culture we live in today. It seems even the most mundane status has its price in gold for the marketers of the twenty-first century.
The worst part of all of this is that we have come to accept it as normal. We are happy to trade our right to personal privacy with the ability to connect with others. We have been saturated by it and as a result disregard it in favour of the addictive and easy nature of the social network.
It’s just too easy to say yes and not to think about it too hard. I’ve bought into it as much as the next person, because either I didn’t care or didn’t even know. After all, who clicks through the terms and conditions or thinks the social network is there to sell our information. We’ve got friends to tag, people to chat to and status’ to post, we trust it because it’s all we’ve known. That’s the beautiful catch – as people we like to trust, to feel close, to share. And that’s where the social network cashes you in.