On the Usefulness of Social Media



Social media is rapidly approaching the type of technology that simply exists, transcending the new and exciting to become ubiquitous, much like the art of writing or going about in wheeled vehicles. That won’t stop everyone from scientists to celebrities from pontificating on the purpose of social media, trying desperately to be the Twitter Nostradamus by accurately predicting trends. Despite the fact that social media may be reducing our attention spans and reading level and be legitimately addictive, it is abundantly clear that this is the technology of the present, and most likely the future. Twitter fuels revolutions. Facebook unites a disparate globe. Companies with no monetization plan or actual assets have hotly contested IPOs.

Despite frantic (and possibly accurate) assertions that social media is at the center of everything that is wrong with the modern world¬†, success on social media is becoming inexorably linked to career and social success. Marketing departments must now pay close attention to their follower counts, ‘likes’, and nebulous statistics like ‘reach’ and ‘impact’. This may very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy – trendy people believe that Twitter is/will be important, and this it is. Not that there aren’t compelling arguments for why social media is useful as a knowledge or image distribution platform – in theory, it is more egalitarian, more meritocratic, more organic than a newspaper or magazine (in practice, Justin Bieber wields more Twitter influence than the Pope and the fastest trending topic is #RAW).

For me, I resisted Twitter for a long time. I signed up with Facebook on the ground floor, when it was just for college students and it seemed like a novelty. I didn’t see a whole lot of use in either platform, though I did enjoy browsing and seeing what my friends and acquaintances were up to (with completely selfish intent – either schadenfreude or a perverse need to compare my accomplishments to theirs). I didn’t have Johnathan Franzen’s seething distaste for either platform, but I wasn’t terribly enthused either.

Eventually my anemic career as a writer forced me to acquaint myself with social media in order to find work. I found that many of my initial assumptions were true – there was plenty of worthless gibberish on social media, and far more noise than signal. Still, there were merits that I had not expected. Easy access to interesting content, immediately connection to communities of like-minded individuals, actual returns from those nebulous concepts of ‘reach’ and ‘impact’.

But Socrates, how can I get more retweets?
But Socrates, how can I get more retweets?

Personally, I have pretty intense attention deficit. I have a compulsive drive to consume media, whether it be books, TV, articles, games, whatever. Even when I am able to keep this under control, I need a certain level of over-stimulation to subdue the noisy thoughts bouncing around in my head. I didn’t make the connection between this struggle and what social media could offer me until recently. As social media platforms have made improvements to their functionality, your ability to fine tune your signal has greatly increased, and I found that I was able to craft a Twitter feed full of actual news, insightful op-eds, and delightful finds from around the world. I have a Reddit account with only the most highly-moderated and least time-wasting subs. I have scoured my Facebook friends list of useless and noisy people, and now I have a page of friends and family telling me things I actually want to know.

Social media may very well be making us stupider, but it is a very new technology. All of the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing reminds me very much of this little tirade against the written word:

“The specific [writing] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Socrates, Phaedrus

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