Originally published October 2010
I’ve watched 2010 unfold with the taste of sick in my mouth. I’ve watched a bunch of fun tools, useful marketing channels and ways to commoditise friendship elevated to the status of kings.
Social media, especially Twitter, but Facebook a little too, seems to have a Siren-style effect on people. Drawing even great minds on to the rocks of idiocy and jargon-babblery.
Where is the proof? What has it really achieved? How is it better and more valuable than television, newspapers, radio or pen and paper? Different, yes, but how is it more valuable?
I hear, ‘reframe the question…’
They mean ‘if we don’t like the answer we’ll change the question until we get an answer we do like…’
Is putting a teabag in your ear a cure for HIV? No. Well change the question then. ‘Is not putting a teabag in your ear the cause of HIV?’ No. Oh great, now it is a cure. Next.
I hear, ‘you just don’t get it…’
They mean, ‘stop saying stuff we don’t like…’
I have enjoyed using social media. I have learned things through social media. I have made money from social media, a lot of us have. I’m one of those that has used the digital world as a platform upon which to build an extra element of my career. It has, in that respect, been a positive thing for me. Does that make it revolutionary? No. It makes it one of many useful platforms.
When ITV was created, my Dad had a job fitting convertors to television sets so that they could receive the new channel. Does that make commercial TV revolutionary? No. It made it a positive thing for him though. And a useful platform for advertisers.
I train and consult clients on social media (though more often online community) and when I do, I say to them what I’m saying here now, it’s no magic bullet. Curb your enthusiasm.
Social platforms are just tools. Grow. Up. They’re fun, they’re useful, you can learn things both personal and intellectual, you can find out what Richard Bacon’s up to right now, but you can also plug into a world of scientists, or human rights campaigners.
You can learn about things. You can make a tiny connection to someone living inside a devastating state machine. But to change something you need to do something, you need to get your hands dirty.
It would be fantastic if changing your location to Tehran and retweeting some smug message overturned a dictatorship, it would be so easy. People like me could just ‘Like’ a regime change while I wait for the kettle to boil. But believing it to be possible makes you a fruitcake.
These are tools. These are platforms. It’s dangerous to elevate them higher.
Being a big deal on Twitter might introduce you to some new friends, possibly get you a new job or maybe a new relationship, but all those things only expand in value when they hit the oxygen of the real world.
It’s just a bunch of tools and toys. For most people, being a big deal online means balls-all in the real world. Taking your Farmville cows to the slaughterhouse won’t serve up a juicy steak.
Someone said to me recently that I must (as an early adopter of such playthings) be really proud of how social media has come into its own over the last few years. Well, I’m not proud. I’m appalled.
The ‘Twitterverse’ at its worse is a pantomime dame shrieking about her own significance while the plot continues behind her. Bad stuff happens, real life happens, the dame is light relief, a tool to move the story on, she’s not the story.
And the biggest dames of them all divert attention from their over-blown claims by shrieking about online newspapers: “you’ve had fifteen years to make this work!” they lament. Well so have you!
There is lots of great stuff to say about social media. Individual successes – let’s celebrate those rather than assume that success is scaled up to a war-winning size. Let’s not get carried away.
Bloggers are bloggers and online newspapers are online newspapers and they both have value. Paywall debate? No debate. I worked for an online newspaper and I had kids to feed. Damn right the words I wrote for nine hours a day were worth something. The frippery and primal screaming of my blog posts (which frequently link out to news that cost something to produce) less so. Far less so. If it’s really worth something, I’ll jam some Google Ads on here and watch the value totted up in pence a day before my very eyes.
To my mind, if I hear anyone else saying things like “we need a new paradigm” or “change the conversation” I shall cry bullshit as loudly as I can IN REAL LIFE.
Women didn’t get the vote because Emaline Pankhurst put a frowny face on her status. I’m being facetious, those tools didn’t exist then. But the Suffragettes didn’t get stuff done by sticking posters up or some other banal, easy exercise alone.
Changing your twibbon is the equivalent of showing your support for anti-apartheid by changing your t-shirt. You didn’t end apartheid decades ago. You didn’t fix Iran now.
I’m not talking about online communities, by the way, especially support communities.
They know what they are, they generally know their own value. A value to the individuals within the community and the organisation providing it.
I have been involved with one particular support community for seven years. It has no sharing functions, it has no avatars, it still sits on a creaking out-of-date Ideal BB message board because the content’s too precious to risk migrating.
It’s genuinely saved families, it’s genuinely saved lives.
That’s a quiet revolution of which I can be proud.