Four Reasons Social Media is Not as Brilliant as You Think It Is

Not so long ago, social media was fun!  I don’t normally approve of fun because I find it usually gets in the way of enjoying life.  But look, I joined Facebook to throw sheep at my friends!  That’s what we did!  It’s several years since I last threw a sheep at anyone or had one thrown at me!

Facebook these days is terribly stuffy.  It invites us to join groups where people share their interest in worthy causes.  A medium that was once at the cutting edge of young people happily throwing sheep, is now full of elderly people burdened with causes.

And as if that is not enough, there is the advertising.  Today Facebook thinks I need to know how to launch a business online, not a bad guess as I’m sure Facebook knows I’m interested in marketing.  Apparently I also need to drive a Nissan Pulsar, which appears to be some kind of car.

Facebook is now one of the most effective ways of advertising your business online.  Unlike Google AdWords, Facebook enables you to match your business to specific people who are likely to be in your market.  Grumpy old men drive Nissan Pulsars.

It’s not so long ago that the only social medium was the telephone.  It was fastened to the wall and so if we were expecting a call we had to hang around until it rang.  Other media such as televisions and newspapers were not social.  They communicated with us and if we wanted to communicate with them we had to write a letter.

What is Social Media Like?

Some say it is fast, instant even.  I say it is opaque.

It may be fast in the sense that what I write can be shared with hundreds of people instantly at the touch of a button.  But that does assume the hundreds of people are reading their social media.  Let’s face it most of the time I have no idea what is going on in social media because I don’t check it.  Occasionally, that is several times a day, some algorithm sends me a seemingly random sample of what I’ve been missing.  I could put them all on my mobile phone and check them when I have an idle moment.  The problem with that approach is I rarely have idle moments.

Social Media is essentially anonymous. 

When you’re talking to a human being they are there in front of you and you know who they are.  Even on the phone, you can check out the speaker’s identity.  On social media you don’t actually know who is communicating with you.  Mostly it is the named person but you can never be sure.  I’m in touch with loads of people I’ve never met or don’t remember meeting.  How do I know they are who they say they are?  I’m sure most of the time they are.  But what if one isn’t?  How do I know?

Social Media is an intimate medium; it can hurt.

We hear a lot about young people being victimised.  This actually plays to social media strengths – it does support local relationships.  Sounds like good news unless your local relationships are bad news.

Some argue you need to use social media to communicate with young people.  But that assumes young people want to communicate with old people.  At one time, young people used Facebook.  Then middle-aged Methodists moved in and young people moved to Twitter.  Quick as a flash the oldies moved to Twitter.  Rumour has it young people are currently hiding on Instagram, whatever that is.  They seek spaces where they can communicate unprovoked by concerned parents and professionals.

I’m sure social media will be a lot more congenial once grandparents run it.  It currently lacks the atmosphere of the tea dance, although some would say Facebook is shaping up nicely.

Social Media are communication tools and so have a certain utility.  They have transformed the way information passes around and particularly the way we consume news.  They have, with reservations, transformed the way we do business, share information and make contact with like-minded people.

But it is a bit like treading grapes in Wellingtons or shaking hands wearing rubber gloves.

Effective but somehow lacking the immediacy of real life conversations.  For housebound people it may be a way to keep in touch and play a part in the world.  For younger people it helps support social life but does not replace it.

In time I think it will enhance older peoples’ lives far more than younger people’s.  Social media will become the preserve of older people as the computer generation grows older.  Younger people will maintain their privacy by meeting in real life.

Using Social Media

Social media’s purpose is to enhance human connections.  It’s sometimes misused but primarily because it is not understood.  There is massive distinction between understanding how social media works and understanding what it does.  Most of these media have been around for very few years and so it will take time before they are fully absorbed into society.

An important question to ask is: what are my real life priorities and how can social media support them?  This implies understanding their limitations, so that you can use these media properly.

When we don’t do that, we view relationships as things to be manipulated.  We won’t so much enjoy others’ presence as demand rights of access to them.  Because we don’t encounter the person directly, the danger is we will take an instrumental view of them.  The danger is not so much that machines become conscious as we dehumanise other people.

Social Media has its dangers but as a society we have adjusted to many forms of media.  It is hard to imagine anything having the impact on society television has had.

The word “social” implies community.  Our challenge is to work out how these new media can support the building of human community in our neighbourhoods.

If you have read this post through Social Media, do tell me about it – I’ll be delighted!

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply 2 comments

Gordon Ferguson - April 26, 2016 Reply

Well said. In my view a lot of the problem with understnading social media is that people fail to see the categorical difference between ‘society’, where people share a common purpose, and ‘community’, where people share a common life. Social media is actually about sharing common purpose, which will lead to enhancing our common life, so long as you relaise that there is a distinctive common life to be shared. As you say, just sticking to social concerns, and this includes in politics, leads to dehumanising people. The Quaker philosopher John Macmurray put it like this: ‘
An association is, then, a ‘society’ when its members are united in the service of a common purpose; it is a ‘community’ when they are united in sharing a common life.’ (‘Conditions of Freedom’, 1949)
‘The functional life is for the personal life: the personal life is through the functional life.’
‘the state is for the community; the community is through the state.’ (both ‘Persons and Functions’ 1941)
When we get the relation between ‘society’ and ‘community’ right, we will use social media well, and indeed will be freer as a result.

Chris - April 28, 2016 Reply

Thanks Gordon, well said. The Agora is sharing of a common life, businesses within the Agora may share a common purpose as well as participating in its common life. Have I got that right?

My point about social media is that it is secondary to the Agora. The question becomes: how can we use social media (or websites or other apps) to support the common life and purpose of the Agora?

Perhaps it has become possible or fruitful to ask that question because the technology has moved on so much in the last few years. The power to use social media in support of the Agora is now in everyone’s hands, should they choose to use it.

As you say social media will support common purpose and that enhances the common life of the Agora.

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