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Social networks are our tools, not vice versa 

Randy Thomas gives great blogging. His post on Vox a few days ago concerned the many social networks we have, as well as the internet and blogosphere in general. It was particularly prescient as the Christian Science Monitor published a related article on Facebook and MySpace afterwards.
   First, Randy wrote:

Time after time I have seen people come online full of conviction, faith or whatever and yet be totally consumed with the narcissistic projection they have created, or have been created for them, online. This false sense of self starts to take over offline and they end up confused and even more alone. …
   If there is an stereotype online that is rewarded the most, in my opinion, it is the snarky every(wo)man. Meaning you have to have the creds of just being an average person with an incredibly sarcastic wit and the ability to one-up the next blogger/commentor. If you can pull that off with video … you might get your own reality show. The problem is that this type of personality does not work very well in the real world and might even be considered anti-social.

   What I take from Randy’s post is the age-old lament that I have expressed: the internet, the blogosphere and the social networks are tools for us, not vice versa. Too many people give up their identities and selves to these websites, losing sight of their original purposes.
   Call me a romantic, but I still view the internet as that great unifying tool. I have been doing business online since the late 1980s and it was always seen as an equalizer for my first 10 years on the ’net. To some extent, it remains that for me, but I have experienced online addiction: in 2006, I felt I had an obligation to keep posting for my regular blog readers and those of you here from the beginning will remember I was, at one point, a daily blogger. It took a wake-up call around 11 months ago to say: blog when you want. This is your tool.
   The other issue I take from Randy’s post is that people have created online personas that they want to continue offline, when they should not care less about what others think of them. I closed that part of my psyche down a long time ago: as long as I had a clear conscience, then who the heck cares about what some moron thinks?
   Yes, in a civilized exchange, one should respect the other person’s opinion, but in the conversations that sometimes carry on online (a regular subject this year, and covered in the print column of this blog in Lucire) which fall short of civility, does it really matter? What are we trying to prove?
   This, in Randy’s words, ‘dovetails’ nicely into the Monitor.
   While I have friends that I only know online—Randy Thomas himself is one—many have become connected to me because of joint projects and beliefs. And the Monitor believes that when one trawls through the countless sites, one comes across ‘distinctive sameness’:

The world of online social networking is practically homogenous [sic] in one other sense, however diverse it might first appear: Its users are committed to self-exposure. The creation and conspicuous consumption of intimate details and images of one’s own and others’ lives is the main activity in the online social networking world. There is no room for reticence; there is only revelation. Quickly peruse a profile and you know more about a potential acquaintance in a moment than you might have learned about a flesh-and-blood friend in a month.

There is plenty of truth there. Why did I start blogging regularly in 2005, after being a quarterly blogger in 2003? To promote my businesses. Because it was a matter of competition. But I would be lying if I said that the self-promotional aspect was absent. Anyone with a blog, a MySpace (worrying how this is becoming a conventional noun, often with an additional pronoun: my MySpace) or even a fan site for someone else is expressing part of themselves. Put it online to the public at large and it becomes promotional.
   But the phenomenon of friendship differs: people collect friends for status or to show off, when it does not matter. It goes back to people trying to prove something, demonstrating that they care about how others view them:

There is a reason that most of the MySpace profiles of famous people are fake: Celebrities don’t need legions of MySpace friends to prove their popularity. It’s the rest of the population, seeking a form of parochial celebrity, that does.

   It is the danger behind personal branding: while this phenomenon has become democratized through MySpace, Facebook and Bebo, and I am the last person who objects to people finding outlets for self-expression, they have a danger, for those who feel some level of insecurity, of absorbing the real personality of that person.
   In more innocent times, that may not have been a problem. The Duke—John Wayne—was probably one of the best self-branders of the last century, taking roles he perceived as compatible with his personal brand. He may have had some thoughts on race that don’t fly well in 2007, but I can’t imagine a John Wayne MySpace, if there ever were one, not being a patriotic, value-filled space with some down-home sense. The man even had some humility about that personal brand. The best of the west, if not the whole USA. No wonder some Japanese still love images of him when they market their ideas about American culture, Elvis and Marilyn his complements for different reasons.
   But in times when the sort of reality TV Survivor–Fear Factor arrogance is de rigueur, then ironically some antisocial personalities exist within the social networks. No one is exactly going to jump on their bandwagon: the Japanese are not going to be playing Richard Hatch clips to celebrate Americana.
   It’s not as though schools have had programmes to teach about social-networking etiquette—or even netiquette in general after all these years. Few are reminded, other than through the MSM, of the dangers of public profiles on their social networking pages, of the problems that may cause with prospective employers and how some of us Google—and have done for years—people whom we consider hiring. And how these days, if we are checking others out through the ’net, many of us have an in-built BS meter to sift through the fake personalities, just as we might with corporate brands.
   The new sites have raised (or lowered, depending on your point of view) the bar about how we might perceive others. It is not all good news, however, as the Monitor article concludes. I won’t spoil it but for those concerned about the social networks, the research cited might agree with your fears.

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Thanks for the compliments Jack. I completely agree with you ... of course.  
Interesting post. I must admit I've fallen prey to the "snarky" stereotype sometimes, but all too briefly (thankfully!).

I do, however, think social networking is changing the way people think about brands.

Before, brands were a kind of shortcut to deciding what kind of person you are ("I drive a VW therefore I am a fun-loving hippy"), but now social networking profiles are asking you stuff about yourself that you may not have thought of. I haven't a clue what my favourite book is!

And more than that, there's the peer pressure. We see our friends - not big companies - present themselves in really cool, quirky, compelling ways. Then we look at our own profiles (or ok, my own profile) and think, crap! I'm irrelevant. I'm too scattered, I need to distil the essence of who I am.

This used to be a process that only media and brand marketers had to do. Now we're all doing it. So companies that are too slick without substance, or no slickness at all, are learning they need to get their stuff together and start self-branding, self-promoting.


A tangential point - I faced a mini-existential crisis when I discovered old school friends on Facebook. Till then, I'd been presenting myself as onto-it businessman, but suddenly, from deep within my subconscious, there was this desire to appear cool and laid back. Interesting what happens when the walls fade away and the past creatively invades the present.

Keep up the great blogging, Jack, you help people think!  
Great article. I totally agree that the Internet is a unifying tool. I think some people just take these social networking sites too far.  
There are so many social networks out there it can be overwhelming. My tactic is to find a couple that I like and stick to them.  
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Entries from 2006 to the end of 2009 were done on the Blogger service. As of January 1, 2010, this blog has shifted to a Wordpress installation, with the latest posts here.
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