Has social media and the proliferation of mass communication spread by individuals led to a culture of extreme self importance and ego indulgence, or has it launched a social revolution by expanding our circle of personal influence? I’ve been chewing on this question and the debates that it has stirred. Some would argue that the explosion of social media platforms and engagements has led to extreme narcissism and a decline of real social engagement. We are communicating more efficiently but with decreasing significance.
Or, is modern social media so disparate from traditional forms of communication that we need to assess its efficacy, intentions and impact with a new set of criteria?
Here is an example. For my recent 25th birthday, I decided to evade the internal debate of whether I am now old as balls or still a pingpong ball throw away from my last college party, and escape to Las Vegas with two of my best friends. Here is a recap of the weekend, via the social networks I currently engage with:
While in Las Vegas, I checked in on Foursquare 13 times, and on Twitter 4 times, posting 2 pictures via Twitpic. Using various social media consolidation platforms like Tweetdeck, I have also merged the majority of my social media communication applications so that they all register my updates and share with my various networks. Over the course of this three day debauchery and the ensuing week I theoretically reached hundreds of people who follow me on Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter, informing them all of my Vegas adventures and raising curiosity about what the heck I was doing at Spearmint Rhino until 7:00 in the morning – I have no idea by the way. Furthermore, from my weekend documentation, I unlocked two badges on Foursquare – inciting a small thrill and sense of achievement in the game (personal gratification). I was also privy to deals that were happening at stores and businesses around me each time I checked in on Foursquare (shared knowledge). Finally, I had multiple friends and colleagues either respond to my Tweets or ask me about the trip personally upon my return having not informed them beforehand that I was taking a trip to Las Vegas (conversation initiation).
By using forms of mass communication in conjunction with one another, I achieved a drastically larger reach and level of unsolicited response than I would have if I had used traditional forms of direct communication – such as face-to-face interaction, Email or phone call. Five years ago, an acquaintance of mine from college launched a social experiment he calls The Six Minute Project. The challenge posed to viewers is to create a photographic narrative of a day in their lives by taking a picture every 6 minutes over the course of 24 hours. The goal is to share a glimpse into your own life with the world while learning about complete strangers as well. Soon, viewers and participants were connecting, learning and appreciating the differences and similarities between themselves and random contributors from around the world. I remember looking through the photostreams and feeling a sense of excitement and connectivity with people I had never known. Five years later, the web of social media channels and their derivatives have found other pay-offs beyond the kumbaya effect of visualizing a connected global society.
Getting back to the original question I set out to tackle at the beginning of this piece, it would seem that each argument is valid. There absolutely is a level of self-importance in the impulse to update your social network on your minute-to-minute daily activities. Do people really care if I just created the best sandwich in the history of the world or checked in at the Starbucks next to my house? Not at first blush. However, the need for constant social engagement is not simply a one-way channel of communication. These seemingly inconsequential and impersonal forms of outreach actually work to create opportunities for real life interaction and knowledge transfer.
I’ll sign off with one last example, touching on the most recent role that social media now plays in advertising and marketing. Social Times posted an article about the wild success of Foursquare Swarm Parties. Small business owners hoping to boost awareness and revenues have begun toying with promoting and hosting Swarm Parties to attract a concentration of customers. Unlocking the “Swarm Party” badge on Foursquare is no small feat. 50 people must check-in to the same location within the hour to unlock this badge. By promoting an event or special deal at their establishment as a Swarm Party, retailers and business owners have begun to attract throngs of social networking consumers – radically boosting revenue and generating buzz. Businesses “get to show off their social media savvy by encouraging a still-indie Foursquare movement. And they could be a lot of fun for customers, too, who like to be rewarded for their loyalty.” What’s most exciting about the social networking revolution is that it continues to grow and evolve with users, generating new opportunities to engage, to market and achieve tangible and emotional benefits.