Social media terrifies me. When Facebook first came out, I was reluctant to join, but everyone did, and then I did. I hate Twitter, but several of my extended family members used it to communicate. I joined Twitter. Slowly, but surely, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Yelp, Pinterest, WordPress, Google, and probably more that I can’t remember are carrying my digital footprint. They all got me, my family, my friends, and millions of strangers. I have to work harder to actively stay away from media (social or otherwise), than I do to semi-obsessively keep up with it. They feed me, and I feed them. What terrifies me is that I need social media, and I feel like social media needs me. I can feel like I’m finding the best information, but really it’s just a Facebook or Google algorithm giving me what I want to hear. I can feel good consuming and/or producing, feeling like I’m relating to my world (e.g. friends, family, country), without actually relating to my world.
I know it seems extreme, but social media makes me wonder if a live person on the other side of it is even necessary, as long as it makes me feel whatever it is that I want to feel, or only sells things to me that I want to be sold on. Last summer, I read a book by MIT professor Dr. Sherry Turkle called Alone Together (Interview with Turkle) In her book, she argues how the interaction humans have through technology (e.g. text as opposed to voice and face-to-face) could lead to an overall acceptance of engaging with technology without a human on the other end, i.e. robotics. She gives an example at the beginning of the book and tells a story about visiting an evolution museum with her daughter. There was a real live Galapagos turtle at the museum, but her daughter protested, believing that a robot turtle would be much preferred over the live turtle because, hey, it does the same job: “real” or “not real”.
Another example, the other day, I received and automated message from Twitter saying, “Thanks for following me!” and it made me feel good, even though I knew—-it’s probably from a robot (i.e. a plug-in or automated application sending it to me). These automated pings, pokes, beeps, and likes, according to Dr. Turkle, have an addictive quality to them. So, if I can’t see that there is a person there that I’m communicating with, then how do I actually know there is another person on the other side of whatever technology I’m using, and do I need to treat them like a person? Does it even matter? I do believe that social media can be good for creating online communities and engaging customers in a new popular way, but at this stage in online marketing and the amplified power of giants like Google and Facebook, computers can simply take algorithms of your searches, friends, etc., and feed you what (the computer/robot “thinks”) you want to consume.
This is precisely what Dr. Turkle is concerned about, as we continue to work, market, and relate through social media technology. Just like I felt good about getting a “Thanks” from a popular tweeter’s automated message app, I might begin to not care if there’s a person on the other end. And if no one is on the other end, that means my job as a marketer, or communications specialist, or social media guru, is no longer necessary (or has drastically changed quicker than I can keep up with), and has been taken over by technology and it’s software engineers. What we thought was a “personal touch” and “digital community”, could be managed and manipulated by a robot.
Not to say that original writers and journalists will be taken over by robots (I hope not), but how they get their message out, and keep up with their consumers, already is and will. I begin to wonder, how can we keep up managing relationships with customers? Is there even a difference between a customer and consumer in marketing in social media? Is pursuing social media worth it? When will the developments of social media and technology plateau? And if it does, how will I use it most efficiently and ethically? Is it being used that way now?
I will mention that there are definitely positive things to be said for people and businesses communicating and promoting one another with social media. As competitive as business can be, in the social media world, you have to relate with your customers, co-workers, fans, and competitors. Especially I think, with small businesses, you can build together: creating local and global communities, sharing overflow, and exchanging tips, ideas, and relevant reading. Websites like NextDoor.com encourage real life neighbors to meet with one another inside and outside of the network. They can post about lost animals, local issues, and exchange recommendations for local businesses and professionals. This is what I think is good about social media: it makes your neighbor (local or global) competitor a potential resource and friend. Unfortunately, with my own need for it, and Dr. Turkle’s dark prophecies about it, on a large scale, I’m just not convinced that’s where it’s going, and I’m still trying to figure out how make it better.
This is what terrifies me about the newness of social media and the ever increasing speed of technological development: it could go very bad in a Fahrenheit 451 kind of way, or it could go very good in honest, helpful, person to person, business to business, sustainable/utopian digital community kind of way. If the consumer/producer just wants to feel like they are engaging another person without there actually being another person there, then our jobs are done. But if producers and consumers want to build a real sustainable business community, then we have a lot of work and training to do in how we focus our personal, professional, and real life, social media production and consumption.