What Effect Is Social Media Having On Us?

April 21, 2010
Decades ago, David Bowie pointed out that our relationship with time was not reciprocal. Time may change us, he said, but we can’t change time. And although social media wasn’t the song's inspiration, in this time of changes the theme seems to fit. In ...

Decades ago, David Bowie pointed out that our relationship with time was not reciprocal. Time may change us, he said, but we can’t change time. And although social media wasn’t the song's inspiration, in this time of changes the theme seems to fit.

In this recent Mashable post entitled “How Social Media Has Changed Us” author and social media marketer Mike Laurie credits social media for several profound changes in how society operates. But the billion-dollar question remains: Are we changing?

This is of course the blogosphere, so there’s still plenty of room for debate, but several of Laurie's hypotheses are compelling and quite positive—from improving child literacy to providing a means for citizens to play a more active role in their governments. The article also points out two other key changes that social media has begun to introduce, including:

Operating on a need-to-share basis

Expertise just isn’t what it used to be. Thanks to The Google, access to specialized information has been democratized, giving anyone who wants to acquire it the tools to do so. This lowering of the barriers to expertise means that you simply need to know where to look. Of course, with billions of people online (and the huge bell curve of intelligence that number implies), and methods like search engine optimization tweaking the results to fit commercial agendas, it’s still wise to check a few sources before trusting, or sharing, any of your newfound knowledge.

Needs may change, but people don't

Take away the noise and chatter of 21st century society, and you start to realize that marketing and advertising hasn’t changed as much as people think. Probably because people really haven’t changed as much as people think. What has changed is where and how we’re exposed to advertising and marketing campaigns. According to Laurie, the growth of social media has forced companies to stray from a reliance on mass market channels to find ways to engage consumers—any place and any time. This allows their message to be received through many smaller niche and “people-centric” activities. Now more than ever, the customer really is king (living in one of billions of really, really small kingdoms).

To me, the most interesting concept that Laurie surfaces in the article he refers to as "ambient intimacy" -- the idea that "communication has become so convenient that it’s actually become ambient around us. It surrounds us wherever we want it, not necessarily when it wants us. We dip into it whenever we like." What will a more intimate and networked society and culture look like five or ten years from now? I'd guess we're on the path to finding out.

As with any technology, there are always perceived downsides. For example, a story in last week's Seattle Times had neuroscientist Gary Small discussing how social media is affecting the way we use our brains, contending that people are becoming information gatherers rather than thinkers. “We don't ponder on thoughts, we just know where we can get that information,” Small said. “We don't memorize stuff. We just know how to find the stuff.” What concerns me is whether or not we have the ability to effectively process all this information, and to decide which sources are decision-worthy. After all, the GIGO (garbage-in-garbage-out) principle still applies -- it's just Social GIGO.

Others suggest social networking is destroying our ability to interact once we’re offline. Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College at Oxford, was quoted in a recent story in The Guardian as saying that social networking is “turning us into babies, shrinking our attention spans and eroding our identity.” (I bet she doesn't have many Facebook friends after that one.)

Certainly, any technology can become detrimental if it’s used improperly. But even regardless of the impact on culture more generally, social media is being proven to be a valuable tool that allows companies to connect more easily with clients, suppliers and customers, create new relationships and become more responsive to existing ones. And Laurie's point holds -- social media continues to change the nature of how our personal and professional relationships are cultivated and maintained. Some deep thinkers are on board; some aren’t. But billions of consumers are, and the ch-ch-changes are happening. If you haven't already, time to turn and face the strain.

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