The failure of self-centered social networks

Many of today’s marketing gurus promise that social media will change the world, so we wonder: why haven’t these tools been used to do more than promote selfish interests?

This is not a judgment call, just an observation. Brands leap into social media trying to build “communities” between their products and potential audiences, resulting in networks of, say, bloggers driving across country to promote a Ford automobile. Individuals join Facebook or Twitter to build “friends” and “followers” around themselves. What is common is the ego, or more accurately the Id, is at the center of every micro-network. The motive for all is to promote oneself. (Want proof? If we asked you, dear reader, how many followers you have on Twitter, we bet you could answer accurately plus or minus 10 without peeking.) It’s no mistake that the central mechanism for organizations to build networks on Facebook is called a Fan Page.

Trouble is, all these micro-social networks compete with each other leaving little meaningful development beyond the individual hubs. If you had asked an oracle of the Torah or Old Testament or Renaissance what would happen if humans could communicate instantly and seamlessly around the globe, he or she might have suggested we’d build new peace organizations, refine religions, launch political parties, even build global democracies that cut through the old models of entrenched statecraft and corporate defenses. Sure, what Robert Scoble calls malleable social graphs or mini mobs may form based on an individual or group’s modality — think ad colleagues grouping at SXSW in Austin or a pulse of humanitarian interest gathering funds after a Haitian earthquake. But even those more useful efforts still revolve around a selfish idea — meet up with me, or give money to my cause. Broader networks are not arising to move collective minds into a higher category of group actualization.

In simplest terms, we have incredibly efficient markets for moving goods and money; but no similar network has been built to shift ideas and the social good.

Perhaps that is why: Money flows better because it is the root of all gains. The selfishness of finance creates efficient investments, but it also leads to fragmented, disaggregated, disparate resources that do not work together for common interests. The deep issues of our day — poverty, hunger, unchecked growth that will eventually (if not already) tax our ecosystem, disease, droughts, hostilities that lead to wars — are not being touched by the new communication tools the technology prophets say are changing the world.

The gravity well of social media is centered around you. That’s a useful construct for pulling small groups into your orbit, but perhaps a poor solution for networking to build collective solutions. Perhaps no tool can do it if the wielder has only self-interest at heart.


8 thoughts on “The failure of self-centered social networks

  1. Did you catch Clay Shirky’s keynote at SxSW? He had example after example of great civic responsibility successes around the world. From women in India whose Facebook group saved them from Hindu oppression and physical beatings, to organizations in Canada that created social networks for commuters in order to reduce traffic congestion, to numerous others that generated participation in positive movements for change. Perhaps some of these are not being done by corporations yet, but give Pepsi a little credit for trying. Think also things like Nike’s Chalkbot, raising awareness for cancer, or our own Grain Foods Foundation Project Bread Art which raised $50,000 for Feeding America. Obviously the big brands are going to employ social media for the purpose of enlarging their community, mobilizing them and turning them into a media channel. But there are plenty of examples where there is a cause at heart. Town Holler for Charity Water is another one. Or Dancing Deer Bakery’s Mother’s Day Ride to support homeless shelters. And all the work done by Danny Brown. You are right if you’re suggesting more brands need to take advantage of an ability to get behind more important things than selling their products. But it’s starting to happen.

  2. Ultimately, self-interest is the only real force for good. All other forces–even “altruism”–are but constructs built upon the bedrock of self-interest. But we, as a species are not evolved quite enough that the majority of us realize that the well-being of others is, in fact, in our own best interest.

    I was told as recently as this morning, by someone of very high intelligence, that the only reason he pays taxes is fear of being jailed. Apparently the obvious benefits of having roads, bridges, police, firefighters, teachers, and so forth elude him. Expecting that people understand more subtle things like the benefits of having healthy, happy children growing up in far way parts of the world, or of people behaving as if we are all part of some shared, finite biosphere, or of understanding that human-kind, collectively, is in a “coopetition” with viruses, bacteria, and every other life form on Earth, is simply too much to expect.

    Someday, hopefully, humans will appreciate the big picture as well as they do the bits and bytes of communication technologies. But for now, Sara Palin is hosting a new nature program on Discovery Channel, our president is Kenyan, and condom use exacerbates the spread of aids. So, we have a long way to go.

  3. Edward, I agree that there are campaign or organizational equivalents to offline groups “doing good.” However, what I suggest is social media has the (untapped) capacity to move beyond emulating tiny offline circles to doing something significantly more. There’s a difference in scope between forming a group to help commuters and forging a religion or political party. While I certainly don’t want to start a religion, I could see a future where networks bring masses of people together to do something significant. Everything so far seems so limited, so campaign focused, so ADD in timeframe (anyone tweeting about Iran lately?). We’ve basically mirrored the organizations and campaigns offline: 99% for promotion and profit, 1% ad hoc for peace, and a few cute case studies. Sure, SM is early on yet … but couldn’t it create more?

    @Andy, while Ayn Rand might agree, I see it differently. There are actually new evolutionary theories that suggest altruism is a positive characteristic to help species thrive and survive. If I give my life for you, my gene lineage will die, not so good for my DNA, but yours will live on, so the greater community benefits in future generations, which makes our species more likely to survive than the purely self-interested one next door. Unfortunately, I’m not certain our species is the one with the altruistic tendencies to make our genes competitive and our ecosystem sustainable… but that’s another story.

    Cheers and thanks for the thoughts.

  4. Ben, Rand would agree with what I think you think I mean, but not with what I actually mean; and I would disagree with her. 😉

    I suspect you and I are really saying the same thing—but I’m not being very eloquent. I am familiar with the evolutionary ideas you mention, but I maintain that in order to appreciate those very ideas, you—your “self”—must think about them and, within your own mind, evaluate them to decide for yourself whether or not you find them appealing. There is only you who can decide for yourself whether a course of action is good or not good and whether or not you prefer that course of action over alternatives. If you were to find something that is “for the greater good” to be appealing and the most preferable alternative (as I easily could in certain circumstances), then that is, by definition, consistent with your self interest. It would be seen as an instance of altruism in the traditional sense of that word, but its deep, deep root cause would still be based on the alternative you wanted.

  5. Ben, your snapshot is accurate but you are not generally so pessimistic. A snapshot is freezing time but in reality everything and everybody is moving around. Where we are moving to is more interesting.

    Shirky has observed that the Web is the ultimate group-forming platform, but before people can form groups, they have to be there.

    Besides us geeks, most people are just landing on the Web and are still trying to build an identity. Is it surprising that building an identity is a self-centered phase? That’s what social networks are for.

    Group-forming on the Web is still in its infancy. It’s an opportunity, not an absence.

  6. Bruno, thanks. You raise a valid point that we are still early in on this networking wave. Humans have always had a gap between tool development and truly learning how to use the tool.

    I do believe, though, that social media appeals to our individual Ids more than we realize. Like Echo falling in love with his own reflection by the pool, we broadcast reflections of ourselves that we groom just so, to make ourselves seem wittier or more knowledgeable, hungering for people to notice us. It’s no mistake the most popular networking tools have scoring feedback mechanisms, like follower counts, built in to provide appeal. I see so much self-interest online. I hope that isn’t a negative bias, but my observation is everyone wants to be at the center of their own hubs, rather than building networks that form for a greater good.

    To clarify my point, it would be cool to see new cloud-based human organizations arise that revolve around large ideas or causes, and not little hubs. Imagine a virtual religion, or sustained drive to stop global warming, or networked effort to end hunger, with real lasting impact. I haven’t found it yet. The tools are there, but everyone just hammers away at their own little projects.

    Don’t worry, I’ll cheer up in future posts 😉

  7. Ben, as usual, you’re spot on. Social media advocates (marketers with a new title) often sell brands on “joining the conversation”. But the result is often Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that are nothing more than one-way “conversations”.

    Few brands are actually listening; most view social media as just another marketing channel. In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot lately that maybe social media’s greatest potential as a business tool is as a customer relationship enabler, rather than a marketing canon.

    Less than a hundred years ago, the primary language of business was face-to-face. You bought goods at Frank’s Woolworth and if there was a problem you talked to Frank about it. As the majority of business at the time was local, the relative value of the individual customer was high, and therefore it was in Frank’s best interest to take care of you as best he could.

    Over the years the majority of business has shifted regionally, nationally and internationally, and the relative value of the individual customer has fallen. Put simply, you can afford to piss off 100 people if your customer base is in the millions rather than the thousands.

    Personally, I believe the social nature of the internet is slowly giving a voice back to the individual consumer. And while there will always be navel-gazers who complain [via social media] just because they can, I firmly believe that those who provide good content (i.e. intelligent criticism versus self-absorbed rants) will be the voices that other consumers will listen to and with whom they will find solidarity.

    Of course the problem in all of this is that “the future of social media for business is customer service” isn’t very sexy; it doesn’t sell well. And as we all know, marketers always seem to need something shiny and new to sell.

    Far be it for anyone to suggest that a company reinvest some of its marketing dollars back into its people, its product, and its customer experience (as defined and articulated by its actual customers).

    As it stands now, despite lip service to the contrary most companies are more concerned with leveraging the bottom line to satisfy stockholders than they are cultivating loyalty among their customers. The irony is that if they consistently succeeded in the latter, they would sustainably achieve the former.

    Just a working theory.

  8. The funny part is, that by building up a huge following, I’m now able to marshall that following to do something good at least once a month. I do a charitable project every month and use my following to push at it. This month, it was finding money for 34 orphans in kenya. Last month, I forget, but I think it was (as I tend to fall back to them often, because it’s an easy mechanism).

    But before I had anyone following, I didn’t have a voice.

    See also: Oprah.

    So, maybe it’s part ego, but it’s also using that power for good. I try to point myself in that direction in between all my marketing and small business advice. : )

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