Beyond Social Media Elitism
Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to social media and the impact it is having upon society and what it means in the lives of individuals. There’s no doubt that social media and the new “web 2.0” technologies have transformed how we communicate and share information, but there’s also no doubt that it has not become the cureall for all of our problems and face-to-face communication remains and always will be the foundation of social interaction.
One of the phenomenon that I’ve noticed on the rise recently is the level of elitism associated with people who embrace social media. What I mean by this is the tendency for those who are users and passionate about social media to look at the people who do not as perhaps, let’s say, a little less “in the know”. I call this “social media elitism”. Social media elitism is when you think blogging, Twittering, commenting on Facebook, producing viral videos (or at least knowing how to view them) or being fluent in other social technologies is superior to not being fluent in these technologies, and most importantly (and perhaps most objectionable), that those who don’t utilize the social technologies as unable or not capable of how to participate in the conversation. Much of this phenomenon is fed by the frenzy around social media and the need for people to consider themselves a ‘guru’ or an ‘expert’ to help create a name for themselves in the rapidly evolving space and in the process creating a gap between those who “know” and those who do not. Don’t get me wrong, I think most ‘gurus’ aren’t doing this knowingly, but rather unknowingly, and are ultimately well-intentioned. It’s just a matter of taking a step back and doing a reality check back to what makes for true social interaction.
One example where social media elitism is manifesting itself is in the perceived role of social media in government. I had the opportunity to attend the Social Media Club of Boston’s event the other day called Change.gov, which was a discussion around the role of social media in government. The panel was a cross-section of those involved in state (Massachusetts) state government, including a state representative. The audience was full of social media passionistas, and was a lively debate. One of the key questions that rose up above all else was that can government be considered effective if it is not utilizing technology– specifically social technologies– as part of the way it governs? The consensus seemed to be “no”, with a criticism of government not making data 100% fully available online, officials not reading and responding to blogs, etc.. In fact, I think government, like individuals can be effective in governing or communicating while not using social technologies. Social technologies are just a means of inserting conversation into other people’s lives and arming people with information they would need to push for change or interact with others. It’s not the sole means. Good, ‘ol fashioned face to face interaction is the foundation of participation and social interaction– whether you government or an individual. If you are a politician, nothing replaces spending face time with your constituents. If you are an individual, nothing replaces face time with other individuals.
Every single one of us know someone who does not utilize social technology– and indeed, any technology– in their life on an everyday basis. Heck, sometimes I’m even one of those people. I am an avid outdoor athlete and explorer, and one of my favorite things to do is to go off for a climb or hike into the mountains or on a long bike ride or swim with no social technology– no iPhone, no GPS, no nothing. In fact, I make it point every 3 or 4 years (I wish it could be more often), to take an extended trip overseas, preferably into some isolated spot in the developing world, and get to explore another culture, climb some peaks and enjoy the outdoors. The point is to get away and put myself into an environment different than what I am used to, both the natural environment and the culturally environment. When I do this, I inevitably marvel at how little (if at all) the natives of the places I visit rely on social technologies. When I visited Nepal and spent several weeks in the Himalaya, the natives I was with and visited did not use social technology at all in any aspect of their lives, but did participate regularly in village meetings, and spent quality time interacting. They had rich lives without the social technology. They changed government, without the technology. In the case of Nepal, they changed the government from a monarchy to a democracy through a grassroots effort independent of technology and relying on cultivated social bonds.
As social media continues to reach all aspects of life, be sure not to fall into the mindset of social media elitism. Continue to be passionate about the transformative power of social media and encourage its logical adoption, but don’t view others who are not users or limited users as unable or not capable to be part of the conversation. In fact, try turning off your computer, putting away your smart mobile device and go out and explore. This exploration could be in the outdoors, or it could be in the city. You’ll notice you will rely on interaction with other people and/or nature much more than you would otherwise. Ironically, you’ll start to rely on the most important element of social media– the power of listening.