Living your life through Twitter and Facebook might feel cutting edge, but you risk being a modern victim of good old-fashioned marketing, argues Peter Knight

So, they organised the Arab Spring on Twitter, or was it Groupon? Just think of how much earlier Nelson Mandela could have been released if only he had a ready tweet or two. “@RobbenIsland. Gearing up for another weekend of heavy rock crushing…”

Despite the great excitement about the civic promise of social media – the greatest social advance America has brought to the world since it abandoned slavery – it looks unlikely that Facebook et al will do much to promote sustainability. 

There seems to be little social purpose to the social media industry other than to sell more conventional stuff.

Boosting consumerism may indeed be what’s needed right now, as we drag ourselves from the recessionary mess we created by believing that we could use our homes as ATMs. But as Twitter reaches a value of $8bn, we are looking four square at the lie that social media are somehow more socially wholesome than old-fashioned media.

Convenient truth?

This belief is predicated on the idea that social media provide opportunities for individuals and underserved groups to propagate and spread their messages, enhancing democracy and increasing opportunity.

This is partly true, as it is with conventional media. But when it comes to the commercial entities we call the social media (Twitter, Facebook and their progeny), not only are social media no different from newspapers, magazines and television, but their technical superiority also enables them to further their own commercial agendas by undermining our abilities to differentiate fact from fantasy.  

In the old days you could easily distinguish a sales pitch from objective reporting – it had “advertisement” written on it. No matter what your views were on inherent biases of the media, at least there was some way of knowing what you were being offered: objectivity or blatant bias.

And you could teach your children how to distinguish between the two. Even in the good old days when they used the medical profession to sell cigarettes, you at least knew that it was the men from Camel who were telling you about how the doctors found cigarette smoke soothing on the throat.

Not any more. The stratospheric valuations on social media businesses are based on the promise that the social and gaming media will once again enable doctors to tell us how good their throats feel after a Camel.  

Ironically, doctors themselves are targeted by a free iPhone app called Epocrates (geddit?) that enables searches for suitable drugs to prescribe. More than half the doctors in the US are reported to use the app.

But as with everything free, there is a social cost because the doctors searching for information have first to pass through a wall of medical “alerts” which are advertisements dressed up as news.

What does it matter if society is devising better ways to encourage greater consumption? Let’s forget the obvious concern about how we can possibly afford to continue organising our economies in exactly the same way as we have for the past few centuries. Let’s just look at how the current internet bubble is wasting talent that could be so much better used to contribute to a more prosperous, more sustainable society.

What bright, brainy graduate would not want to be Mark Zuckerberg or any of the other badly dressed but insanely rich social media moguls?

Chasing the dollar 

The sadness of the social media hype is that earlier generations looked for ways to find new worlds in space, or devise new medical cures, or develop advanced materials to make life better. 

Now the world’s top brains are working on ways to make the social media make money. How to infiltrate sales messages into 140 characters. How to integrate more commercials into Facebook. These huge intellects are heading to California where dark rooms, bright screens and pots of gold await those who can find ways to sell more deodorant, rejuvenate tired shampoo brands and convince us we definitely need more blades on our razors.

As the space shuttle Challenger landed for the last time, I thought how insular America had become, how myopic. Instead of looking to the heavens and dreaming of new worlds, we turn instead to search for friends on our little screens; behind which social media barons are doing very little more than devising the modern version of the 1950s Camel advertisements. Got a match?

Peter Knight is president of Context America.


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