"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
March 1, 2010

“Social” Is Not Free

“Frankly, I’ve struggled over the years to control the hours I spend on the internet… In a way, the internet is not unlike television. I’m sympathetic to people who chose to not have a TV and one day I might join them. But, that move feels too excessive, too Spartan, too riddled with necessary explanation […]

“Frankly, I’ve struggled over the years to control the hours I spend on the internet…

In a way, the internet is not unlike television. I’m sympathetic to people who chose to not have a TV and one day I might join them. But, that move feels too excessive, too Spartan, too riddled with necessary explanation and worthiness. Put simply, we don’t need to go that far to control our urge to channel surf.

Perhaps there’s an analogy with the marshmallow experiment (see the recent piece in the New Yorker, or this TED talk). The internet is yet another test of our ability to defer gratification and by extension to choose productivity. The problem is not so much that sometimes tune into the internet and use it, but that we so often chose to be partially tuned it while partially tuned into other things and thus not really tuned into anything.”

I wrote those words last June. They still ring true today.

Defer Gratification

As a musician, technology-head and early adopter of the web I loved reading Jaron Lanier’s assuredly critical manifesto, “You Are Not A Gadget.” Lanier is no luddite or internet-hater – he pines for the old hopes and aspirations of “new media” and the semi-chaotic individualism of “home pages.” What he sees, with stunning clarity, is the way that social media, especially sites like Facebook, condition us to respond to reality as the software delivers it to us.

Let’s not forget that whatever our social media poison happens to be – Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, SoundCloud, Foursquare, they essentially mediate reality to us via databases – which means they are inherently reductionistic. Think of it as the difference between social reality and that reality represented to us via a survey or census. The statistics in a survey are not untrue, in fact they are often revealingly true, telling us important things we may not have noticed. But, they are not the whole truth.

For example, it’s one thing to say that, statistically, a neighbourhood has a percentage of Lebanese residents. It is a whole other thing to walk past a store where you can smell the Kibbeh, Tabbouleh and freshly baked flatbread.

Choose Productivity

“Social Media Guru” is a collective name for an assorted class of consultants, dreamers and snake-oil salesmen who have, in popular online culture become a constant source of derision and scorn. It has to be said that I’ve never actually met someone who calls themselves a “social media guru,” either in person, or online.

However, if you spend any time on Twitter these kinds of folk start to come out of the woodwork. They might talk about how to “monetize” (damn I hate that word) social media, or have some book or programme they are trying to sell, but they all have one thing in common.

Their online presence, in terms of followers, volume of posts and aggressiveness of opinion stands in start contrast to the lack of links to their real world body of work.

The people I find compelling and inspiring online, be it via blogs or twitter, are the people who do amazing things off-line. They work hard, balance exploring new opportunities with dedication to their craft and occasionally, they manage to be successful. Their online persona reflects who they are in the real world, but it is nothing more than that – a reflection.

No surprise then that people like this can give a concise answer when you ask them why they use social media and what it has done for them.

By contrast the “social media gurus” always, in my experience, can’t give you a straight answer to that question. Rather, they talk in clichés or even worse, in hopes, dreams and wishes. Moreover, they seem to inhabit a kind of Simulacra, or Borgean map of virtual reality, rather than the real world.

Remember that who we are online is nothing more than a database abstraction of our reality – it’s the numbers and graphs of a census report versus the fleshy reality of a person.

Tuning In And Tuning Out

For any sane person, a social media “strategy” has to contain, at its core, the ability to tune in and out of the “flow” of information. If not you are a slave to that flow – say good-bye to productivity, creativity or originality.

Or worse, you simply become a work of fiction (Lanier explores this in detail). This is the most grievous error of those who suggest we should think of ourselves as personal brands. Brands are tightly woven stories and quite often these are fictional stories. They make sense by a process of associations, often abstract associations, evoked though design.

But people are not like that. We built through layers of sedimentation and experience. When we adapt ourselves to fit the flow of social media by recreating ourselves as a brand, we have not only reduced ourselves, replaced flesh, odour and touch with the cold statistical facsimile of the census, we have also made it harder for ourselves to disconnect from the flow and do whatever it is that makes us interesting.

From Solitude

For me this is an important point because everything interesting I have done in my life – be it playing guitar, composing music, taking photos, academic writing, public speaking, even cooking – proceeds from solitude.

That time alone is essential, both for fostering new ideas and for developing the skills required to execute them. What I’ve learnt is that if you want to write serious non-fiction, then at some stage you have spend not just hours and hours, but days and weeks alone; reading, writing and redrafting. A similar story is true in music. Practice, be it learning scales or new material is an inherently solitary process.

Social media is a wonderful boon for creative people. It gives us a space to share our work and to find others who are on a similar path. Creative community is wonderful for education, support and encouragement and social media can help us develop that.

However, the time we spend packaging our ideas into social media, be it writing blogs, posting pictures, or uploading music and video, does not come free. It comes out of the limited store of time we have to devote to our work.

And, in my experience, the social media gurus don’t get this at all. That makes them more than just a tragic nuisance. Rather, they are pedalling a soul-destroying form of insanity that could easily derail anybody who is serious about their creative work. Our calling is not conform ourselves to the database representation or reality, but to engage and shape reality itself.

My advice is to simply ignore anyone who offers you advice on how to monetize and maximise your social media presence unless they have a pretty clear and longstanding background of success in your field as either an agent, publicist or marketer. This will mean references, prior successful campaigns and examples of their work will be evident.

But, perhaps even more importantly, find successful people in the fields you are interested in, who use social media well. Here is a list that I follow, but you would do well to develop your own.

Ariel Hyatt, music publicist TwitterBlog
Alain de Botton, writer TwitterSite
Chase Jarvis, photographer TwitterBlog
David duChemin, photographer TwitterBlog
Dave Kusek, music educator TwitterBlog
Felica Day, actor and producer TwitterBlog
Hugh MacLeod, cartoonist TwitterBlog
Mark Kermode, film reviewer TwitterBlog
Steve Lawson, musician TwitterBlog
Wess Daniels, minister TwitterBlog

Responses
Mike Mahoney 13 years ago

I reject the idea of social-media “gurus.” If the whole idea (Should be) is to personalize the web experience, then why do we need someone to tell us how? Oh, of course… monetizing. Silly me.

On a lighter note, I just spent an incredible weekend at a retreat, playing in a worship band made up of guys who had never played together, all of whom met via social media. We came from up and down the east coast of the US, and felt like we were old friends from the first handshake. We capped the weekend off with a 20-song free concert for anyone who wanted to attend. The crowd was large, the music loud, and the band sounded so tight that several people came up to us afterward and asked if we had an album, or when we were touring.

Sometimes social media works. So when are we getting together to jam? 🙂

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Of course, there is a role for people who can help a business, or band to develop social media as part of a PR or marketing campaign. But, they will have a bigger vocabulary than Twitter this, Facebook that.

The jam sounds cool. Social is the most important part if socia media, bringing people together In meaningful ways rather than just random clans and aggregations.

The sad thing is I have carried my golf clubs to the US, but not a guitar. Should change that.

Spike 13 years ago

One thing this post has made me think about is how much of my own time is devoted to RSS, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s made me realize that I probably spend too much time on these things given what I receive in return. It distracts me from doing the things that I really should be focusing on. And it reminds me that I have a lot of free time now because I’m not working full time. I need to make some adjustments now to be proactively prepared for the future. Thanks for this.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Spike – I agree.

One further thought is that the time we need to think about is not just the actual time spent reading, writing and interacting with stuff online, but also our mental state when we close down the blogs, tweets and feeds.

It took me a while to realise this, but not all online media affect me the same way. I used to ruminate a lot on stuff from forums and, to a lesser extent facebook, even when I was away from the computer. That’s really dangerous stuff.

On good days there are clean edges around my online time and I hope to keep learning how to do that and how to pick and chose where I get involved. It’s not easy.

Spike 13 years ago

I strongly agree with that first point in your comment. Mostly I read stuff, comment (or not) right away and move on. I took a day before I commented on your blog post because I thought it was worthy of further consideration first – and that also tells you that it did indeed “stay with me” after I’d read it.

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