The Facebooks of this world are anti-social media

Just about every day now, I go to a couple of sites which seem to me quite good at explaining (in English) what the gradual interconnection of everything from email, texting and Twitter to Facebook and blogging means. The spraining of our language rarely gets any worse than ‘outreach’, and the developments keep me abreast of how the online world space is revolutionising news.

The collective term everyone agreed upon (in that it caught on immediately) is Social Media, and at first sight it seems sensible enough as a group description. But it isn’t. It’s a rationalisation of how, as a species, we are moving further and further away from doing the natural thing. And just as bad, it’s a lousy description of what the media are really being used for.

The first social medium was the letter, followed by the telephone. Although letters originated in royal and military circles – and the phone was a massive boon to business – from around 1845 onwards in the West, private individuals kept in touch by sticking things in letterboxes and taking speaking-handsets off cradles.

‘Wish you were here’, ‘just a few lines to say that’, and ‘thought I’d drop you a line’ became classic letter syntax, while on the landline phone ‘How’s it going?’, ‘Felt so bad I hadn’t spoken to you for ages’, and ‘We really must meet up soon’ were all entirely natural because they were about staying in touch. They were also often about missing friends and wanting to see them again, and making arrangements to meet up.

The idea back then of a relationship consisting only of letters and phone calls would’ve been thought odd: they were a means to an end, nothing more – outside the office, they were the facilitator of a physical meeting.

Facebook and Twitter aren’t really about us, they’re about me: look what I’ve found, look what I’m doing, look at my photos, look at my dog. People might occasionally confirm a meeting via these methods, but that’s all – ‘See you Saturday’, not ‘Let’s meet up Saturday’. They’re a substitute for a  meeting, but more especially an ego transmission. In that sense, they are anti-social media.

The main loser from their growth has been the landline phone call and email. As The Slog grumbled as long ago as 2005, email was ruined as a medium by marketing, aka spam. It also became an arse-covering excuse for not dealing with a problem personally. This was classically demonstrated last week when the MoD fired hundreds of army personnel by email; but as long as a decade ago, the corporate email was a way of burying bad news among 250 pointless messages: “Oh – didn’t you get my email?” was always to me the ultimate hypocritical enquiry.

So-called social media have little or nothing to do with the bonds and experiences that build a real friendship. They’re a way to propagate one’s own slice of la dolce vita – most of the shots are in bars and restuarants, or on beach holidays and weekends away. Recognising this, early on entrepreneurs in the sector hit on the idea of building fantasy towns, villages and even wars, to which one’s friends are ‘invited’ – ‘Come and join me in Braindeadsville’ and so forth. Dubbed ‘alternative realities’, they’re nothing to do with reality. In fact, they are disturbingly infantile fantasies.

A more accurate descriptor for these media would be ‘public’, because that’s very often what they are. And public doesn’t mean social: transmitting publicly is again to do with ego – like a personal television station. Most blogs are exactly this, right down to the uploaded vieo clips. And then of course there’s YouTube – my telly. The Newscorp version of Facebook is indeed called MySpace.

Memememememe.

But my main beef with the term social media is that their main purpose isn’t social. For the people running these virtual catch-ups, the sole point of them is the gathering of information.

We’re back at one of my favourite soapboxes here, surveillance of our lives and the invasion of our innermost privacy. For tabloid journalists, Facebook has been a boon: what better than to run a picture of some minor celeb getting pissed? And there it is – without even the cost of a papparazi fee – on Facebook. Last year when breaking a piece on a failed US Islamist bomber, out of interest I put the name into Facebook, and there he was. It was the most effortless scoop in history. (Today, do the same for a renowned gossip or covert journalist, and you’ll find they don’t exist. If nothing else, hacks know the malign power of ‘social’ media).

Last year, MySpace found itself accused of giving confidential member data to everyone from Newscorp’s own journalists to the IRS. Only time will tell whether the accusations are well-founded, but with or without media-owner cooperation, people are asking for trouble showing what a great time they’re having…..when they were supposed to be on a serious Course, or at the office. Dismissals have resulted from this – references have even been checked via social media, and candidates turned down – while Mark Zuckerberg himself admits that Facebook has become a major source of divorce evidence.

But marketing departments have been the main beneficiaries of the social media explosion. You can bet your life that all of them are segment-analysed every which way by the proprietors, and then sold as targeting aids to marketing people. Even as a light user of these media myself (they’re a very good way to get hits on the site) I’m acutely aware that all the ads on my favourite home pages seem to know the sorts of things that interest me.

Huffington Post, the online news title, is a good case in point. Whether I go to the site via Google, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, my avatar is always there in the top corner of the screen, with ‘Welcome back nbyward’ to greet me. This despite the fact that I’ve studiously turned down all their kind offers to sign up via those other media. Even the fusty old Daily Telegraph has on all its comment thread forms, ‘Share with Twitter?’

Marketing and media people themselves focus largely on the way in which ‘viral’ fame – for a product or an event – is in some way a life-enhancing thing. The logic of this escapes me: as often as not the rumour one sees on Twitter turns out to be without foundation, and anyway the whole idea of mob news repulses me.

Commentators on the recent (and ongoing) Middle East disturbances have in turn been quick to point out that the ‘democracy forces’ were hugely aided by Twitter, blogs, Google and even Facebook. And on the other side of this coin, the case against Newscorp in relation to phone-hacking has been (and will be) clinched by Tweeted evidence.

But such aids can be used for evil too – and will only cause security services around the world to ensure they know who’s sending what to where. (Not for nothing has GCHQ signed up a whole host of ISPs, enabling it to view 24/7 precisely who’s where doing what and why. For a surveillance operative, this truly is shooting ducks in a barrel).

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It’s notable that the older generation – 55+ – is the only segment where email isn’t declining. The obvious reason for this is its greater degree of privacy – something we wrinklies know it is vital to preserve. And this is what’s breaking destroyed by social media.

Letters and phone calls are equally private. Sure, GCHQ is probably  recording alot of it – and I’d like to see that stopped – but for the overwhelming majority of us, there’s a greater feeling of safety there – of discretion.

As a culture, we are above all indiscreet now. Hello, office gossip, personal blogs, social media and television programming all encourage us to be an exhibition: the X-Factor is based on that, plus the continuing manic desire for celebrity. Look at me, look at me, look at me.

Much of this encompasses a near-universal desire now to escape – to a beach, or a fantasy town, or into a bottle – from the pretty awful work and media culture we inhabit.

Well, I bring news. Many people using social media are looking at themselves, not you.  And either way, Big Brother is watching all of us: from that, there is no escape.