Are Twitter and Facebook Anti-Social Networks?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Are Twitter and Facebook Anti-Social Networks?

 From Tech.LifeGoesStrong.Com


Seems everyone is on Twitter and Facebook, but not I. Here's why I'm anti-social network.

Each time I hear about how innovative and society-changing Twitter and Facebook are, I flash back to "The Telephone Hour" sequence at the start of Bye Bye Birdie.

 Do you feel trapped by the anti-social nature of Twitter and Facebook?
Source: Getty Images

 In less than four minutes, every teenager in Sweet Apple, Ohio, is aware that Hugo and Kim have gotten "pinned" (goin' steady, in the parlance of the innocent and early 1960s). And not only did all their friends quickly get the news, they knew the entire 411 pinning details and exchanged diverse opinions about the match not only to each other, but within their gender and social cliques, and to the protagonists.

Now that's social networking.

No Twitter, no Facebook. And having lived through the period represented with two older sisters, I can state this rapid spread of social news sans Internet was not unusual.

If either Twitter or Facebook had been around during my school daze, there's a good chance some non-connected teens would have been left out of the Hugo & Kim loop. And a posting of the breaking Hugo & Kim news on either so-called social networking site would have been missed since the pinning alert would have been displayed with the same priority as a weight loss plan spam or link to a story on Conrad Birdie's impending departure for the army.

Compared to the Telephone Hour's personal one-to-one reach out and touch, the impersonal Twitter and Facebook are actual anti-social networks.

Do not mistake my intent here. I am not an anti-social network Luddite. I just want to put things into some rational perspective. Twitter and Facebook are communication tools. They are good tools. But they are not the only tools. And they are tools I seldom use.

After all, how can a thing that purports itself to be "social" not involve anything human, person-to-person? Communicating with people through a machine sounds to me like the very definition of anti-social.

Power to the people?

As with many high-profile tech fads, we tend to give the new far more credit than it deserves while forgetting how we managed to get along without.

Take, for instance, the comments of Jeff Jarvis – journalist, Entertainment Weekly creator and chief blogger of the media watchdog website – on CNN's Reliable Sources this past Sunday:

People have a voice now, we all have our Gutenberg Press in our pocket. We can all speak. Twitter is an incredible tool to hear what the people are saying. It is the voice of the people.

I hate to disagree with someone far more media successful than I, but this hyperbole implies "the people" didn't have a voice, nor could "the people" make themselves heard, prior to Twitter. Identifying Twitter is the "voice of the people" is not only wrong, but dangerous.

Twitter and Facebook are a voice of a slice of the people, those who subscribe to or are members of Twitter and Facebook, hardly all the people. As Richard Nixon might have posited, Twitter does not represent the "the great silent majority." I know far more people NOT actively on either Twitter or Facebook than on.

Plus, Twitter and Facebook are simply the latest in a long line of "voice of the people" tools that historically include the mail, pamphleteering (Thomas Paine was not a lone voice of common sense), the telegraph, letters to the editor, the telephone, talk radio, chat rooms, email, blogs and texting.

Only collectively do these communications outlets, including Twitter and Facebook, represent "the voice of the people."

Social network movements

Like a hammer is used for hammering and a screwdriver is used for (excuse me) screwing, each communication tool performs a specific task.

For instance, Twitter and Facebook are one-to-many communication tools, an inexact shotgun tool. Communication forms such as email, text and telephone are more one-to-one, sniper rifle-like communication tools. Each is appropriate for different addressing specific situations.

Or, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his (as usual) brilliant New Yorker essay "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," Twitter and Facebook create "weak tie" network relationships while inter-personal relationships create "strong tie" networks. (Whether or not Gladwell examined the role Twitter and Facebook's played in the Arab Spring, which I wrote about in "How Technologies Spark Revolutions," I don't know.)

The diffused "weak" nature of Twitter and Facebook networks help raise awareness, but are ill-equipped to spur actual social participation.

President Obama discovered this the hard way last week. Instead of a more strategically targeted one-to-one appeal, he tried make a surgical strike against his Republican debt ceiling opponents by carpet bombing, tweet-extolling his followers to contact their local Congressional representative. Seeing these tweets as more spam than call-to-action, he reportedly lost around 40,000 followers.

Personally speaking

Don't get me wrong – I don't hate Twitter or Facebook, nor do I want to dissuade anyone from using them.

But personally, each time I'm on either I feel as if I am confronted by a prospector's sluice in search of a interesting, relevant or important nugget. I just don't have that kind of time – I have 28,000-plus unread emails, and these are theoretically directly precisely at me.

Plus, I'm resentful because I'm becoming a Twitter widower – my wife is constantly scanning her tweets, at home and when out-and-about on her iPhone, tittering when she comes upon a tweet that tickles her, luxuriating in her slowly growing number of followers, and occasionally paying attention to my presence. But she does keep me appraised of interesting nuggets she comes across – such as the Gladwell essay.

I scan the thoughts and opinions and doings of others in varying online venues, including, occasionally, Twitter and Facebook. I gather with the boys to exchange news and views at my weekly poker game, and with my fellow tech journalists at frequent press events. I read a variety of news and opinion sites and, occasionally, comments.

But when I or my peeps have something relatively important to impart, I use email and, sometimes, the even more old-fashioned social networking tool – the telephone.