Will Social Media Eat Itself?

The Internet has shortened the use-by date of most content. Even our attention spans are getting shorter, in inverse proportion to the amount of content we consume and length of time we spend engaging in Social Media and other platforms. Paradoxically, some stuff grabs our attention, and goes viral as everyone posts, shares, likes, blogs and Tweets the same content. Which brings me to this infamous “infographic” on donuts as a signifier for Social Media:

Donuts_SocialMedia_ThreeShipsMedia

Content by Three Ships Media – Photo by Doug Ray

Recently, I saw this image appear as a status update and a “like” by the person posting it. There was no obvious acknowledgement, giving the impression it was an original piece of work. But I recalled having seen it before (more of which later), so I was intrigued as to the true source and provenance. On closer inspection, there was a reference to a third-party website, but this was a dead-end leading to an anonymous blog post.

After a brief search, I located what I believe is the original source for the infographic, Three Ships Media, as well as the photographer who captured the image, Doug Ray. Not that difficult to uncover, given that the post has been “liked” and Tweeted about well over 100,000 times, and written up in Three Ship Media’s own blog (about how this innocuous image had gone viral….).

Now, I don’t believe that the person who posted this image was trying to claim the content as their own work. And I doubt they were deliberately seeking to violate anyone’s intellectual property rights. Yet, the failure to acknowledge our sources (regardless of whether we are exploiting them for personal commercial gain or simply invoking the fair use provisions) threatens to undermine our credibility as commentators, critics and thought leaders. If we keep recycling other people’s work without attribution, the risk is that social media will simply implode as it chases itself in ever-diminishing circles.

Ironically, I realised that I had first seen this infographic at a seminar on the legal and practical aspects of Social Media. It was used by a lawyer to introduce his presentation on copyright issues and the Internet. All very well, except that he insinuated that he had come up with the infographic, and he certainly didn’t cite the original source….

Footnote: The title of this blog was inspired by the writer, David Quantick who coined the phrase “pop will eat itself” in the mid-1980’s, to describe the way modern music is self-referencing itself into oblivion.

Outside of a small circle of friends, there’s only connections…

"A Dance to the Music of Time" is an epic tale of friendships and relationships

How many true friends can a person really have? Friends you would go to the cinema with, and who would walk out with you if you didn’t like the film? Friends whom you would invite to stay at your home for the holidays? Friends who would tell you when you had made a fool of yourself, but not hold it against you? Friends from whom you would borrow money or to whom you would lend money?

Social networking makes it all too easy to connect with people we’ve barely or never met. Instead of investing our time and effort in cultivating meaningful and lasting friendships, social media encourages us to “collect” as many virtual friends as possible, and we spend increasing amounts of time in vicarious “sharing” – but how many of these “connections” can we actually count on as our friends?

The question occurred to me as I read the First Movement of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, a literary tour de force situated somewhere between Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” and Evelyn Waugh’s sequence of novels from “Decline and Fall” to the “Sword of Honour” trilogy.

At the heart of Powell’s 12-novel saga is a group of four friends – Jenkins, the narrator, and his three contemporaries from school – Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool. As we follow their adventures over a 50-year period, we discover the interweaving relationships and often tangential connections that run through their lives. We also witness the subtle change in relationships between the main characters – especially the ebb and flow of their individual circumstances as they fall out of favour and lose contact with one another for years at a time. The reflective and considered format of the novel allows us to see that as in real life, there are periods when the friends positively dislike each other and are frequently disappointed by their personal shortcomings and irritated by their annoying habits.

Powell’s epic work of fiction reminds us that even among our strongest and most enduring friendships, there can be episodes of absolute dislike, as well as times of empathy, loyalty and support; and of course, being only human, our opinions and views of our friends can change over time. Powell’s perspective also confirms that most of the people we encounter in social and professional situations are mere acquaintances. We must surely recognize that our personal friendships are each valued on their own merits, and we enjoy different friendships for different reasons – we do not simply have a homogenous group of “connections” that are all exactly the same. There is nothing wrong with being part of well-connected and inter-related networks, but we must guard against reducing all these relationships to a single dimension.

Unfortunately, most social networking platforms operate on a binary structure where we are forced to make simplistic choices of either “friend” or “unfriend”, “like” or “unlike”, “follow” or “unfollow”. And there is something rather materialistic and incredibly narcissistic in the way that the number of “likes”, “follows” and “shares” we collect on-line is not only representative of our popularity, but it is somehow an indication of how fabulous a friend we really are.

Unlike the real world, these on-line platforms do not recognize the subtle dynamics of our true friendships, nor do they acknowledge that we value each of our friendships for the different experiences that we draw from them. We also have different friends with whom we enjoy doing different things, and we probably don’t introduce all our friends to one another (and certainly not at the same time).

Of course, younger generations who have grown up with social media may have no qualms about the reductionist nature of social networking, and the inherent opportunity it affords them to “connect” with as many different people as they can. But for someone like myself who is quite happy to count fewer than a score of people as my true friends, I relish the quality of my friendships, not the quantity.

Apologies to Phil Ochs for (mis-)appropriating his song title.

Social Media – finding its own level?

Social media is accessible to all...

Social Media is accessible to all…

Recently I’ve come to see that as a communication tool Social Media is just like any other resource or commodity – it’s not an end in itself, it’s what you can do with it that makes it valuable.

If I had to make a comparison, I would say that Social Media is most like water – not just because we seem to be swimming (if not drowning) in the stuff; but because like water, it will find its own level. And as Myer CEO Bernie Brookes found out this week, something that sustains us can also be unleashed against us.

As content pours into our Social Media aquifers, it will naturally flow, collect and disperse. The rivers of content being uploaded daily* suggest that unlike other resources, Social Media will not run out any time soon:

  • Twitter: 400 million Tweets posted per day
  • Instagram: 40 million photos uploaded per day
  • YouTube: 72 hours of videos posted every minute
  • Facebook: 2.5 billion content items shared per day
  • LinkedIn: 175,000 new profiles created every day
  • SoundCloud: 10 hours of audio uploaded every minute

These reservoirs of digital content that we are creating could be put to good use (like dams that provide hydro-electricity). Viewed from this perspective, Social Media can be seen as a potential source of energy. Rather like waterwheels that harness the power of rivers, Social Media can be used to drive a range of applications; but left to its own devices, and with nowhere else to go, all this content will simply collect in stagnant pools – sometimes you need to use part of that energy to keep the water flowing downstream.

In just the past week I’ve been exposed to three more Social Media platforms, each of which is at advanced beta stage: @IFTTT – a tool to re-publish selected updates to multiple platforms via a series of automated decision trees; @Poptip – a tool for conducting polls via Twitter; and a personalized viral marketing tool which I probably cannot mention by name because I had to sign an NDA in order to participate in the pre-launch.

Each of these new platforms is trying to harness the potential of Social Media and keep the communication flowing (the waterwheel analogy). Similar to other Social Media platforms, these tools also act like aqueducts carrying water to where it’s needed. It’s as if we are using the content to feed a Social Media irrigation system – the results of which allow us to harvest followers, “likes” and customers.

The question is, who will we look to for inspiration when we come to write Social Media’s epitaph – will it be Smith, Bell, Coleridge or Goethe?** Will we end up drowning in the stuff (but no-one will notice until it’s too late)? Will we wish we had used it more sparingly? Will we be faced with an abundance that we cannot actually make use of? Or will it be a case of “be careful what you wish for”? (Clearly, King Canute is of no assistance, as it’s far too late to turn back the tide….)

* Note: Statistics gathered from a casual internet search of company websites, press releases and industry commentaries. No claims as to accuracy, currency or verification.

** Literary references: Stevie Smith – “Not Waving but Drowning”; William Bell – “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry)”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

“If it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen…”

I truly fear the day, probably some time in the very near future, when the phrase, “If it’s on Facebook, it must be true…” is used in open court as factual evidence. Not because I especially distrust this particular social networking platform, but because it would imply that social media has become a document of record. This would mean that content from Facebook and other social networks could be cited in court as evidence of information being true, of an event having occurred, or of a person (or object) actually existing.

Many commentators have explored this question of social media and “did it really happen” either in the context of existentialism (“I Instragram therefore I am”), or in respect to social media etiquette (“just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”). I am more concerned with what happens when we start to place inappropriate reliance upon content and information published via social media?

It took a number of years for faxes and e-signatures to be accepted in court as evidence of a document having been executed or a legally binding agreement having been created. E-mail is now admissible as evidence that a formal notice has been served between parties to a contract.

In some situations, e-mails and text messages are cited in court proceedings as evidence of a person’s promises, denials, deeds, opinions, state of mind or intent. “Smoking gun e-mails” are not uncommon in major court cases, and many organizations are required to archive e-mails and instant messaging for the very purpose of maintaining a “paper trail” in the event of future legal proceedings.

But I think we are far from ready to recognize social media as an official document of record, even though many users treat these platforms as a primary source of news and information.

Recently I was speaking to a Gen Y acquaintance who admitted that she got much of her daily news via a group of Facebook friends, who each post stories or news items as they hear or read about them on Facebook and the media. Given the immediacy of such “news bulletins”, the fact that this might be second-hand news does not seem to matter – “peer recommended” or “peer referred” information is often deemed to be just as reliable as the official or primary source, even if the content is selected on the basis of the number of “Likes” or how prominent it appears in search engine results.

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and their users are vulnerable to legal action if they propagate libelous or other offensive content; and as we know, this material can be used as evidence in criminal and other legal proceedings relating to cyber-bullying and hate speech, etc. That, I have no issue with.

Equally, I have no problem if social networks are used to announce births, deaths and marriages, or if companies want to communicate with their customers and suppliers via social media. If a customer seeks to rely upon the terms of an offer placed in a retailer’s Facebook page, that is no different to relying on a newspaper or broadcast advertisement. But let’s not equate publication on social media with our obligations to register or file certain events and official notices with the relevant authorities.

Social media allows each of us to be anonymous or hide behind assumed identities, and to publish what we want within the limits of free speech and other legally defined parameters.

But there is nothing to say that any of the stuff that we publish about ourselves has to be true or accurate, and I would be aghast if that was ever made a pre-condition for using social media. Social media is a wonderful platform for expressing opinions and exploring different aspects of our lives and our personalities, and it is precisely for this reason that social media is incapable of being regarded as a document of record.