Andrew has been writing Anti Buzz for 4 years resulting in almost 200 articles. For the next several weeks we will revisit some of these just in case you missed it.
Something very important: software metaphors.
Another piece of metaphorless software that you are likely familiar with, Facebook. Even with ‘book’ in its name, Facebook, and social media in general, don’t really look like anything you’ve ever used before. In fact, their ability to change their interface at will and still be Facebook is evidence that there is no real world template for what is happening online. You can see it as a completely new technology. Through the 20th century, nothing that resembled social media existed. We’re not talking about an electric typewriter or an information superhighway here, we’re talking about something for which there are no metaphors.
Most of what you read about the technology revolves around advice for leveraging it, (which is fine). Others are interested in trends. Not a lot of what you read tries to make literal sense of what the technology is. So, what, really, is social media?
Social Media is Metaphorless
What does that mean? First, it means that social media is completely new, not simply an old form of communication enhanced by the Internet’s connectivity. This, in turn, means that we don’t fully understand its potential, nor it’s dangers.
Second, the lack of metaphor contributes greatly to the sense of alienation it brings to some users, especially older ones. The generation gap between young Facebook addicts and their confused parents is in part created by the metaphorless interface. The same people who “get” email, word processing, and streaming television “don’t get” Facebook. The difference between an old technology revamped with modern enhancements and a genuinely new technology is huge.
Social Media is Public
Setting your “well, duh” aside, think for a moment how important it is for most people to feel like they are sharing an experience. One source of wedding planning agony for me and my fiance’ was, the choice of music during the reception. If your goal is to get everyone up and dancing, then good songs familiar to everyone are more valuable than better songs familiar to nobody. Familiarity is important. Sticking to music, many people just want to be aware of what the most popular music of the moment is, not because they even particularly like half of it, but because their familiarity with it will be shared with many other people. This familiarity produces talking points with both friends and strangers. Popular media in general maintains its popularity by promising a shared experience.
One of the biggest impacts of social media is that its persistent and public nature facilitates these sorts of comforting, shared experiences, but it does so without the expense of producing popular “lowest-common-denominator” entertainment to go along with it, (it has become abundantly clear that your average person can produce that sort of thing on their own). So, yes, obviously social media is very public, but the implications of this are not always taken seriously. If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between a Facebook addict and somebody who only uses it begrudgingly, you might consider it is not unlike the difference between somebody who listens to Top 40 Hits on the radio and somebody who could care less.
Social Media is Journaling
A common complaint I hear about social media is the quality of the content their friends produce. People who aren’t enchanted with the technology say things like, “I don’t need to know when my friends are at Starbuck’s” And it’s true; none of us need to know when anybody is at Starbuck’s. In my field I do occasionally come into contact with studies done on the content of social media, and if there is only one broad-stroked generalization to make, it is this: The vast majority of people who use social media spend the vast majority of their time journaling the mundane details of their day. The enormous bulk of all tweets are simply things like, “at work” “at lunch” “having a beer” and “thank goodness it’s friday.” All the minor goalposts of one’s day, summarized over and over again. As if I needed more validation of this, a friend of mine complained of the capriciousness of Facebook, saying he would post a nice photograph he took and get no response, but if he said he was eating lunch at some restaurant, he would get 30 ‘likes’.
Pooling the last two concepts together, what we get is that social media is really just a public journal. You write in your diary, but then you leave it on the coffee table and invite people to look through it. That’s social media. The catharsis of journaling, with the comfort and validation of sharing your experience. And yes, if neither of those things appeal to you, then the whole institution is going to look a little strange.
If I am to bring this back around to some practical advice: I was wrong so long ago. People will /totally/ become fans of their dentist. You might not generate a lot of traffic or interest simply by maintaining a Facebook page, but an active user will, when they come in for treatment, likely make a post or two about where they are. If they can link to you or your page, even better. If their friends kill five minutes by talking about dentists, you might earn a new patient. It costs you very little to simply make sure you have enough online presence to put an email address or phone number into someone’s hand. At minimum, social media allows you to maintain a magic billboard ad that will appear where ever people talk about you. Social media, and Internet connectivity in general, is about lowering barriers to information – so lowering the barriers to information about your business is a simple and easy extension.