Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
June 5, 2012 7:44 PM

Is Social Media Too Good To Be True?

Has the Internet turned into a wasteland of hollow ideas and groupthink?

Is it possible that in a day and age where any one individual can have an idea and publish it in text, images, audio and video for the world to see - instantly and for free - that the true value of critical thinking is all but lost? Has all of the user-generated content that we see in channels like YouTube degenerated us to the point where the only thing everyone talks about around the water cooler is some moronic video of a poodle on a skateboard? Andrew Keen made this argument in his book, Cult Of The Amateur - How The Internet Is Killing Our Culture (Bantam Dell Publishing Group, June 2007). The book, which has been published in seventeen different languages, took a very opposing view of the Internet and the power of social media. In some instances, this made Keen massively popular (especially when mass media channels wanted an opposing view) and in other circles, he was named the anti-Christ of Silicon Valley. Nice title, if you can get it.

So who, exactly, is Andrew Keen?

The British-American built the popular in 1995 (during the dot com boom) but has since moved on to become a media pundit. He is currently the host of Keen On - a video interview program on TechCrunch, a columnist for CNN and a regular speaker and commentator on Internet culture and digital technologies. Most recently, he released his second book, Digital Vertigo - How Today's Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us (St. Martin's Press).

Don Tapscott is a world-leading authority on innovation, media and the economic and social impact of technology. He's been at this game for a very long time (over thirty years), having published close to fifteen widely read and bestselling books on the topic (including Wikinomics, The Digital Economy, Growing Up Digital and his latest, Macrowikimonics). Tapscott is currently the Chairman of Moxie Insight, a member of World Economic Forum, Adjunct Professor of Management for the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and Martin Prosperity Institute Fellow. Here's how he described Keen's book, Digital Vertigo: "More disorienting drivel from the enfant terrible of the digital age. Do not buy this book as it will distract you from the truth (my views)." In contrast to this thinking is Sherry Turkle. She is an Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and published the bestselling business book, Alone Together - Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books, January 2011). Here's her take on Keen's book: "A bracing read. From Hitchcock to Mark Zuckerberg and the politics of privacy, a savvy observer of contemporary digital culture reframes current debates in a way that clarifies and enlightens."

Keen on Digital Vertigo.

"My new book is less about how we think of ourselves as next generation broadcasters and much more about how we seem to be revealing more and more of ourselves online and being continually watched," says Keen from his home in San Francisco. "Digital Vertigo is about both narcissism and voyeurism and less about the network becoming a next generation media platform for the distribution of information. While I don't think mass media was a paradise, I am nostalgic for it. As it disappears more and more, we're going to remember not its weaknesses - which there were many - but its strengths: It's ability to speak to larger groups of people than the niche media of the Internet. It's not a technological issue, it's a cultural one."

How self-involved is your digital experience?

If Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are not about narcissism, what is? Prior to online social networks and social media, the majority of us would start off our online journey at a destination or a portal (think Yahoo!, AOL, etc...). Now, the portal is a personal portal. Most people's homepage is their Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn profiles. We hop over to Google and LinkedIn to creep on what others are saying about us. We have a strong expectation that advertisers - who are now tracking our each and every digital move - will direct advertising that is completely relevant and complimentary to our online consumption and creation. In biblical speak, the majority of us are building what can only be described as digital shrines to ourselves, and all of our personal glory.

The photos that we post are almost as unrealistic as our expectations that we'll get some semblance of happiness from all of these digital ego boosts that we live in.

"I'm fascinated with this idea of serendipity," says Keen about how we are destroying chance, mystery and general interest in our society. "I'm trying to deal with serendipity in a film noire, Hitchcockian, way in Digital Vertigo. I'm arguing that what appears to be serendipitous is actually quite the reverse... Nothing is really serendipitous on the Web. Everything is arranged. Everything is planned. So, when we appear to come across something by chance, it is because networks and advertisers are organizing it that way. Hitchcock's Vertigo is the central metaphor in my book because in that film, Jimmy Stewart got set-up to fall in love with somebody who didn't really exist. I think the same kind of phenomenon happens all of the time online. Maybe it's a deeper, more philosophical, conversation that perhaps nothing is serendipitous on the Web... it's not my message that has changed over the years, it's that the rest of the world - and more sensible people - are starting to better understand this surveillance culture that includes the Facebooks, Googles and Foursquares of the world."

Yes, Keen's work is contrarian, provocative and forward thinking.

As more and more of us expose ourselves (and those around us) online - and in real-time - has anyone stopped to ask, "At what cost?" How is this good for us - as individuals - and for our culture? This is what Keen is trying to decipher in Digital Vertigo. So, whether or not you're wondering if social media is good for business and equally powerful for individuals, it's always important to have thinkers like Andrew Keen throw a wet blanket on whether or not Facebook is making us better.

Regardless of whether of not Wall Street has already done that for us.

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

You can listen to my conversation with Andrew Keen in its entirety in an upcoming episode of Six Pixels of Separation - The Twist Image Podcast (which will be published in the coming weeks).

By Mitch Joel