Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The medium is the message OR why we must stop being social media narcissists!

It is often argued that social media owes its success to this very fact: people show a flawless version of their lives, sparking envy and cynicism in others. Detractors of social media, arguing against the growth of impersonal relationships and lack of censorship, seem to have their work cut out for them. Marketer's, on the other hand, walk around in the dark stumbling upon crashing failures or unexpected success stories which they cannot replicate. Does this all mean that we must agree with those who say that social media cannot but cultivate shallow relationships and superficial egos?
My belief is however that they have it all wrong!
The thing people often miss is the fact that the internet is a tool. Too obvious? Perhaps, I say too that the internet is a medium. Confused? Well, let me explain.

When I say that the internet is a medium, I mean that it is actually a medium for creating relationships. The catch is, however, that these are not the same in kind as the face-to-face relationships you have with your closest friends, your family, or even your peers at works. The internet is a lousy medium to generate strong long lasting bonds. Understanding this is a necessary step, prior to grasping its true potential as a medium.
The word medium may perhaps carry some of the blame for the misunderstanding. The problem with the Medium is the results of taking it as representative of two basic images. On the one hand we have the medium as a sort of support for transporting something, where the image of, for instance, a pipeline, through which water flows freely, would be exemplar. The medium is, on the other hand taken as a sort of visual support that would somehow bring something distant to our presence, where for instance the TV would be a medium through which a TV-show is seen, or a screen the medium through which a projected image becomes visible. In both cases, however, what is at stake is the notion of the medium as essentially transparent and passive. The pipeline is a medium inasmuch as is it transports, without hazard or leakage, the water that flows through it. The moment at which the pipeline starts leaking the medium becomes visible, we become aware of the pipeline, but we do so always in a negative fashion—the pipeline has become a bad medium when we are aware that it is there leaking. The same can be said about the TV. The TV without a TV-show to watch is dead, but a broken TV is not much better. 

Curiously enough we become aware of the medium only when there is something wrong with it, and we, again, grant true importance to the TV-show, but not to the TV; to a certain extent if we could watch the show as a live audience then the TV becomes useless, because there would be no need for a medium, for a support. From this perspective, therefore, the internet would be expected to equally transport something; words, videos, photos, and, to my point here, it should also transport persons, to the extent that social media should replace face-to-face relations only there where flesh-n-bone interaction would not be possible.
I propose, in turn, that we shouldn't see the medium as a support that should somehow help us to create experiences that should resemble, albeit badly, the ‘real thing’ (the live TV-show, the friendly conversation, and the sensation of fresh water). From this point of view the medium will always be a plan b or a second best, whose positive qualities are always dismissed. The positive qualities of the medium are, for instance, being able to TiVo a show to see it later, while in my pyjamas with a pizza in my hands, or, for instance, being able to contact someone who we don’t and can’t know in person, but with whom we have a patent shared interest, and so on. 

The role of the medium, furthermore, is not to primarily allow me to become friends with a scientist in the North Pole or with a Movie star in Italy, for this would again be nothing but a reduction of the medium to a second best. What the medium so distinctively and concretely allows for in a wonderfully unique manner is for me to become familiar with the writing, photos, paintings, drawings, ideas,  and, in a word, the work (professional or not it doesn't matter) of virtually anyone around the globe. I may not be able to use the medium as a way to get to know a person’s deepest personal thoughts or funny quirks, but I can take advantage of it to create my own networks of shared interests. 

Given that these networks will expand or contract depending on the actual exchange that goes on through them, and given that the more that is shared between people the more solid a virtual relationship will be, it is then not surprising that the more you give the more you will be able to expand your role within your networks. It is not simply a matter of public advertisement or sophisticated public relationships—although it could be—because we are not simply bumping into strangers in an interruptive manner: networks live of mutual exchange and there is no mutual exchange in uninvited interruption. 

There is mutual exchange in shared interests, and these mutual exchanges are indeed gifts (don't miss Gift Giving and other Crazy ideas that Bosses don't Get), because the same as with teachers, mentors, or colleagues, we can cultivate and cherish the relationships we have with them, notwithstanding that they may not be the same in kind as the ones we have with our closest friends, our siblings, our kids or our parents.