Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How I Friended a Dead Guy and Became a Social Media Zombie

Joining, "friending" and "liking" within social media require near-zero time, effort and commitment, and so their value is often over-rated.



I confess that I friended a dead guy, and my excuse is that I didn't know the poor gent had passed away. Over the past year or so, kindly readers have occasionally emailed me a "want to be Facebook friends" request. A few months ago I overcame my reluctance, caved in to curiosity and created a Facebook account.


This was the same model I followed with MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter. I had first read about MySpace back in 2003, before it had become well-known, when its raison d'etre was providing bands a site to share their music and upcoming gig dates with fans.


As a musician in occasional garage bands and as someone with a number of musician friends, I thought this was a smashing-good idea. Then MySpace morphed into a platform for Channels of Me, and the focus shifted to expressing your personality via playlists and favorite bands, the background and design of your page, and linking your page to all your friends' pages.


Once the goal shifted to monetizing the site, all sorts of non-music-related groups and forums popped up, along with adverts and a near-infinite stream of hype about how permanent and mighty MySpace had become.


Though the value proposition in MySpace (other than a novelty site for teens) appeared to have been lost in the sea of hype (valuations in the billions, etc.), I signed up our Waimea garage band and posted a song.


The page is still up, untouched since December 2005 when I created it: Waimea Bunker Band. It's indicative of my feeble belief in any payoff that the song I posted wasn't even recorded by the Bunker Band--those songs were WAV files and I was unmotivated to transfer them into MP3 format just for this page. So instead I posted a studio song by my friend Mike Dakota that I'd played guitar on.


(If you're overcome by curiosity, you can listen to the Bunker Band's raucous jams and Mike's song on my music page.)


I tried joining a few of the writing groups, but after a few visits it was clear I wasn't going to get any return on the time invested in reading them--and indeed, ditto for MySpace as a whole.


And so I became a Social Media Zombie: still a "member" that was included in various counts, but long gone as a participant investing time and effort in the site. Sites which are mostly "inhabited" by Zombies become Zombie sites.


MySpace in its first flush of mimetic desire and novelty was bought for $800 million by an Old Media company; recently, MySpace laid off half its staff in preparation to being sold for $30 million or less: the valuation of a Zombie Site.


In other words, there has to be a payoff for the investment of time and effort. I have concluded there are four payoffs to social media sites like MySpace and Facebook:


1. Mimetic desire: We want what we perceive others wanting--that is, we value what others desire. If everyone "cool" is talking about their Facebook channel, then we want one, too, and thus a herd mentality is birthed.


2. Novelty. As noted yesterday, humans crave novelty, and so there is a big initial payoff to joining and exploring a site with limitless numbers of participants, links and opportunities for interaction (friending, posting on others' "walls," "liking" posts, etc.)


But alas, novelty wears off in relatively short order. This is the dynamic of social networks and teens I describe in my little book Weblogs & New Media: Marketing in Crisis: first you enroll in NeoPets, then after you burn out on that, you graduate to another social media; eventually you tire of that, and then it's on to the next.


The collapse of MySpace shouldn't surprise us: the novelty wore off.


3. The ability to keep up on our friends' (public) lives efficiently. There is a great efficiency in Facebook: with a few dozen clicks and a few moments per page, you can keep up on your friends' photos and posts without having to get in touch with them via texting, email or their (probably not updated) blogs.


If you want to leave a quick note, then it's quick and efficient to do so, but there is no obligation to do so: the "exchange" is opt-in on both sides. (Thank you, CNF, for describing how our young friends leverage this efficiency.)


This is a legitimate value proposition, but it has a number of limits, the most important of which is that this social media minimalist exchange does not replace or substitute for conversation or the magic of making or having real friends.


4. Owning a Channel of Me enables people to play around with their identities. Just like switching clothing styles, eradicating once-desirable 'toos, changing majors, etc., the Channel of Me is a mallable expression of "Self" with a capital S.


This process of identity experimentation and formation is part of growing up, so it shouldn't surprise us that the Channel of Me is intrinsically attractive to youth. I am sympathetic with this process of exploring identity, ideas and convictions, and it's the thematic core of my novel I-State Lines (Sample Daz and Alex's adventures here.)


But there is something innately superficial about this detached, online "self." The very fact that it can be changed so easily and with so little consequence renders it weightless.


There is something deeply unsatisfactory about this experience, a subtle state of deprivation and eclipse which can lead to isolation and depression. I am not at all surprised to find articles such as How to Avoid Social Media Depression making the rounds.


Since I focus much of my attention on the politics of experience, then it seems to me that the current models of social media are intrinsically inauthentic on several important levels. I think that's one reason among three I don't find the experience compelling or interesting.


Another is that these social media sites are devoid of opportunities to learn. And without any opportunity to learn, then novelty wears off very quickly and ennui soon rules. These sites are a form of "entertainment"--one more interesting than the vast majority of TV content, to be sure--but there is a distinction between Twitter and Facebook. When I skim the tweets from the several hundred people I follow, at a minimum I get a valuable sense of the cultural zeitgeist in a few moments of effort--what I referred to in yesterday's post as a meta-value. The investment is modest in terms of time and the payoff is occasionally substantial.


Perhaps others get this same value from Facebook: if so, then I would say Facebook has real value to them.


The third is the snippets left on "walls" don't really express much: in aggregate, perhaps, they express something true and thus interesting about the person, but they lack the personality of an email or a lengthier blog post.


I have followed dozens of personal blogs over the years, and some entries remain indelibly imprinted on my awareness, for the writer captured something true and universal in a paragraph or phrase that was crystallized by their purposeful, expressive blog entry. If these individuals quit posting, I feel a loss, because their personality was expressed in their posts: of longing, indecision, memories.


Perhaps it a reflection of our culture that social media of the Channel of Me type is superficially focused on the externalities of life, identity and ideas (where I went, who I was with, etc.). Yes, these are important to the participants, but there are limits of authenticity and meaning to these jumbles of snippets.


I realize those of us who have worked through our identities in the main find Channel of Me social media less engaging than those youth actively sorting through identity and authenticity. But since joining, "friending" and "liking" within social media require near-zero time, effort and commitment, I suspect their value is often over-rated.


Back to my friending the dead guy. A few days after accepting everyone's invitations, I thought I should invest a few moments in finding out who my new "friends" were. At that point I discovered my "friend" had died.


The hype surrounding Facebook (it's worth $142 billion!) has reached a fever pitch which typically marks the high-water mark of enterprises founded on mimetic desire and novelty.


Is Facebook the Last Next Big Thing? Somehow I doubt it. The mere fact that parents and grandparents are joining in droves should sound the gong of Doom. But more on that tomorrow.


Social Media Week: 800 Million Channels of Me (February 21, 2011)


On a related topic: Weblogs & New Media: Marketing in Crisis (free bits) (Kindle)


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