[Un]social Media

social-media-bandwagon.jpg

One of my colleagues in the change community sent me a link to a video, extolling the explosion in social media activities. The rapidity of adoption is truly astronomical, but growth doesn’t necessarily mean improvement. Numbers are always a diminished indicator of the consequences of whatever has been growing. Growing GDP does not mean higher quality of life, and now appears to be causing just the opposite, as the social and natural structures that create that growth are being strained beyond their capacity to recover from inevitable stresses on the system. I am concerned we will come to realize a similar danger as social networks replace more tradition ways of interacting.

One of the statistics on the video is that Ashton Kutcher and Ellen DeGeneres have more followers on Twitter than the population of Ireland. Other than providing evidence of our addiction to celebrity, this number means absolutely nothing. Much of the data on the video told of vast amounts of information becoming accessible. “We will no longer have to find news; it will find us.” Its next bit replaces “news” with “products” that will seek us out. While the video is anonymous, it clearly was trying to impress and attract advertisers. The basic message is that more information is going to make life better. I do not agree.

The idea that more information makes life better rests on the assumption that we make our decisions based on information feeding some rational calculus. Certainly we do this at times, but not all the time, and rarely, if ever, when we act within a relationship. The important experiences in life are those which serve the cares we have: cares for our bodies, cares for others, and cares for the world. Care here means that we act with some intention to produce outcomes that have meaning for us beyond the mere acquiring of something. Social media are measured by connections between people and information. Connecting only creates a channel for conversation. Information channels are lifeless, what matters is what we do with the information.

Meaningful relationships allow us to act without coercion or domination. This does not mean that all patties have to be equal in some sort of power, but that we act consensually. Jurgen Habermas, an eminent German social theorist, has developed a model for such consensual behavior. He calls it communicative action as opposes to strategic action which is more like a game with winners and losers. Action, which is the essential core of relationships, follows from conversations, explicit or tacit between actors in which they assess the intentions of the parties. Action is always necessary to create a future which is satisfying to all involved.

Habermas says that we may enter into consensual acts with others if the following claims are established as valid:

  1. I understand what has been said.
  2. I accept as true whatever the other party claims as reasons for acting.
  3. I accept that the other is being truthful and can follow through.
  4. I accept that the other party desires to act out of a legitimate care for me. For example I do what a doctor tells me because his role as prescriber is the reason I went to see her. With the mechanization of medicine, this claim is getting fuzzier and fuzzier.

Context free information, by far the bulk of that being transmitted via social media, does not provide proper inputs to establish these claims. The video I watched claims that 1 out of 8 marriages came after an introduction on the Internet. There’s little argument that Internet dating may be less burdensome than bar-hopping or placing personal ads in the local newspaper, but that does not mean it will produce more satisfying relationships. Anyway, who says that creating, perhaps, the most important relationship in one’s life should be easy. Finding a partner should not, I believe, use the same process as buying a book on Amazon.

The ability to create communicative action has become increasingly eroded as interactions of all kinds, like health care, become commodified. Social networks are destined to be major contributors to the commodification process. They produce the illusion of relationship, not relationship. There is little Being possible in a world of illusion. I’m a couple of chapters into Chris Hedges book, Empire of Illusion, and getting more anxious as I go. The title is quite revealing. I have finished two chapters, The first exposes the centrality of celebrity culture and how it has invaded the public space of politics and other important social spaces. The second discusses the growth of pornography (mainly via the Internet) and how it creates the illusion of love. I’ve just started the next chapter on the illusion of education. More on this as I continue to read the book. It’s not calming bedtime reading.

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1 Comments

David said:

Social media is a great time saver. Instead of waiting for months or years before we know a person, social media can show us immediately how superficial and ignorant they really are.