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Anti-Social Media: What digital intimacy means for consumers and brands

August 19, 2009 33 Comments

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The chart above does a handy job of breaking down the various choices available to us for communication.

On the one hand, its easy to interpret this variety of choice as freedom, and equally easy to imagine that such freedom enriches our lives. On the other hand, the choices above (most of which did not exist ten years ago) also have us splintering our self image across many communication platforms.

This has subtle but important consequences for consumers. No doubt it’s great to be able to contact people on the other side of the world in real-time. Yet as a result, many people (including myself) are making less of an effort to have face to face contact with friends or family that live nearby. This dynamic is self-perpetuating as it seems the more ‘real-time’ tools we have at our disposal the less time we have to physically meet. Perhaps that’s why ‘Talking’ is #10 above and not #1.

At the same time that face to face time is being marginalized, the relative anonymity and exposure available through social media is encouraging uncharacteristic exhibitionism. As Brian Solis noted last week, the “healthy and important tussle between Twitter and Facebook also carries significant impacts on human behavior as existing and new users are subconsciously conditioned, enticed, and emotionally and intellectually rewarded for digital extroversion.”

So is less face time and more online exhibitionism all that dangerous? Perhaps not to the current adult generation since we still know what life was like before social media. It’s a reference point that allows us to maintain some semblance of balance. Our children’s generation, however, will grow up knowing little else and I wonder at what cost? Already young adults are shooing their parents off facebook and teenagers are obstinately refusing to tweet. Social media is a known quantity in their lives and its rise has only just begun.

If there is any criteria by which to judge the value of social media in our lives, it might have to be as broad as “does it better our daily lives?” Obviously early adopters of such new technology will answer “yes”. But the father in me wonders whether the old school community (you know, that one built out of neighborhoods, a corner store and the local school) offer experiential advantages over an online network. In the same way, is a relationship, born, nurtured and largely maintained online as substantive as one in which time is spent together? Obviously its not a question of ‘either/or’. But while this generation may think the answer is obvious and the question redundant, but the next, tech-reared, generation may soon think very differently.

As a marketer, the excesses of digital intimacy are equally apparent. With the advent of social media, many brands have capitulated any responsibility with regard to earning customer trust or loyalty. Instead they simply aim to hijack and capitalize on our personal relationships. Obviously marketing has always relied on word of mouth exposure and social networks have dimensionalized this dynamic in a way that’s irresistable to marketers. So the user is caught in the middle between wanting to communicate more freely while not being exploited at the same time.

The fact remains that the relative anonymity of social media cuts both ways. Just as we readily export curated versions of ourselves across social media, brands increasingly view us as data points to be exploited rather than as human beings. Social media enables brands to transform our ever-expanding network of personal relationships into a virtually limitless marketplace in which our personal profiles are recast as product placement opportunities going to market.

As less and less of our lives escape consumerism, and more and more of our relationships migrate online, the chart above will perhaps expand to twenty or one hundred levels. Will such digital intimacy truly enrich our lives, or is it simply the latest guise through which brands use consumers to enrich themselves? It’s hard to tell where that balance will net out and ultimately each person must choose for themselves whether being a social network user means they must also be willing to be cast as a consumer.

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33 responses to “Anti-Social Media: What digital intimacy means for consumers and brands”

  1. ken muth says:

    Interesting. Seeing the impact on my storyboard business. TV Advertising seems like a dinosaur now. All you have to do is google any product and there are infinite brand choices, retailers, product details and pricing.

  2. ken muth says:

    Interesting. Seeing the impact on my storyboard business. TV Advertising seems like a dinosaur now. All you have to do is google any product and there are infinite brand choices, retailers, product details and pricing.

  3. admin says:

    Thanks Ken. I agree. there’s a lot about the way “business has always been done” that simply isn’t relevant anymore. Power has shifted to the consumer and they’re organizing themselves using social media. I suspect your clients are changing too. it;’s exciting times but we have to be versatile and nimble. Hope all is well, Simon

  4. admin says:

    Thanks Ken. I agree. there’s a lot about the way “business has always been done” that simply isn’t relevant anymore. Power has shifted to the consumer and they’re organizing themselves using social media. I suspect your clients are changing too. it;’s exciting times but we have to be versatile and nimble. Hope all is well, Simon

  5. Heather says:

    hbelle
    “Will such digital intimacy truly enrich our lives” – I think it is a interesting intellectual debate but this concept can be applied to almost any slice of history where new technology changes the social landscape. Go to the most extreme. One could say the discovery of “fire” meant humans did not need to huddle together to stay warm. The telephone meant people no longer needed to walk miles to reach each other. TV meant that families no longer “played games” and “talked”. I am not sure why this moment in time has created a higher anxiety level. As a parent I get it…my son sends “text” never calls his friends. Will he be antisocial..no. I believe the pendulum tends to swing to the middle. As will this. Heather Belle

  6. Heather says:

    hbelle
    “Will such digital intimacy truly enrich our lives” – I think it is a interesting intellectual debate but this concept can be applied to almost any slice of history where new technology changes the social landscape. Go to the most extreme. One could say the discovery of “fire” meant humans did not need to huddle together to stay warm. The telephone meant people no longer needed to walk miles to reach each other. TV meant that families no longer “played games” and “talked”. I am not sure why this moment in time has created a higher anxiety level. As a parent I get it…my son sends “text” never calls his friends. Will he be antisocial..no. I believe the pendulum tends to swing to the middle. As will this. Heather Belle

  7. admin says:

    I agree Heather. Any new technology goes through the same cycle. Only this cycle, in which the internet and social media is making the world smaller, also seems to be doing it at arms length. I imagine the same fears were associated with the telephone and even television in that people stopped meeting socially and gathered around the screen instead. Ultimately my fear is based on the accumulation of all these trends – more screen time for everyone, more relationships living online, more options for arms length intimacy. I’m sure – as you say – the pendulum will swing back and suddenly face time will be become more important again. That seems some way off right now and that swing won’t happen before some unfortunate excesses. Just think of video game addiction. I even saw the first social media addiction rehabilitation course recently! I guess I’m just a little impatient and wary of how far we will have to go before we realize its time to turn back. Thanks for the thoughtful comment and hope all’s well, Simon

  8. admin says:

    I agree Heather. Any new technology goes through the same cycle. Only this cycle, in which the internet and social media is making the world smaller, also seems to be doing it at arms length. I imagine the same fears were associated with the telephone and even television in that people stopped meeting socially and gathered around the screen instead. Ultimately my fear is based on the accumulation of all these trends – more screen time for everyone, more relationships living online, more options for arms length intimacy. I’m sure – as you say – the pendulum will swing back and suddenly face time will be become more important again. That seems some way off right now and that swing won’t happen before some unfortunate excesses. Just think of video game addiction. I even saw the first social media addiction rehabilitation course recently! I guess I’m just a little impatient and wary of how far we will have to go before we realize its time to turn back. Thanks for the thoughtful comment and hope all’s well, Simon

  9. Heather says:

    HEATHER BELLE

    I find your concerns interesting given you are creating your own brand around the use of technology as a means of connecting, selling, marketing etc. Am I off base? Of course there is a rehab for Social media addiction. We’re a bit like rats. As long as pushing “the button” creates some positive feedback we want more. If a little is good, more must be better. More usually makes you sick even if it’s just too much birthday cake. Pretty soon their will be a 12 step program for life. The first step. Admit you are powerless over being born. I hope people will always want to touch. – human -hbelle

  10. Heather says:

    HEATHER BELLE

    I find your concerns interesting given you are creating your own brand around the use of technology as a means of connecting, selling, marketing etc. Am I off base? Of course there is a rehab for Social media addiction. We’re a bit like rats. As long as pushing “the button” creates some positive feedback we want more. If a little is good, more must be better. More usually makes you sick even if it’s just too much birthday cake. Pretty soon their will be a 12 step program for life. The first step. Admit you are powerless over being born. I hope people will always want to touch. – human -hbelle

  11. admin says:

    Hi Heather.

    No, you’re not off base and I’m glad you asked. I put myself out there as a branding/market/social media spokesperson. In that capacity, I would be foolish not to use all these tools as I am clearly “doing business”.

    But in this case I was speaking on behalf of consumers/users. As they increasingly adopt digital intimacy and leave themselves open to the manipulation of marketers, its hard not to question the consequences.

    That doesn’t mean I’ll stop what I’m doing in protest. I’m simply a marketer who is very aware of how manipulative we can be and feel its important to point out the dangers. Especially when so many users are so effusive about social media.

    Thanks again for the feedback and here’s to hoping the addiction thing doesn’t get too crazy before the pendulum, as always, swings back again. Simon

  12. admin says:

    Hi Heather.

    No, you’re not off base and I’m glad you asked. I put myself out there as a branding/market/social media spokesperson. In that capacity, I would be foolish not to use all these tools as I am clearly “doing business”.

    But in this case I was speaking on behalf of consumers/users. As they increasingly adopt digital intimacy and leave themselves open to the manipulation of marketers, its hard not to question the consequences.

    That doesn’t mean I’ll stop what I’m doing in protest. I’m simply a marketer who is very aware of how manipulative we can be and feel its important to point out the dangers. Especially when so many users are so effusive about social media.

    Thanks again for the feedback and here’s to hoping the addiction thing doesn’t get too crazy before the pendulum, as always, swings back again. Simon

  13. Suzanne Shay says:

    I think your concerns are valid in that I have indeed become a target audience on Twitter many times in a few months’ time. However, I have also seen how, for me, facebook brought people back into my social circle (live & in person) that I had not seen in 20 years. I regularly have dinner with people I would not otherwise have ever seen again, quite likely. I think, for me, social media expanding my “real” social life has everything to do with my personality, and as such, I’d have still wanted face time even if facebook gave me the perfect excuse to be “hands off.” Social media has enriched my life, while exploiting it at the same time. Do I care? Not really. Trade off was worth it…

  14. Suzanne Shay says:

    I think your concerns are valid in that I have indeed become a target audience on Twitter many times in a few months’ time. However, I have also seen how, for me, facebook brought people back into my social circle (live & in person) that I had not seen in 20 years. I regularly have dinner with people I would not otherwise have ever seen again, quite likely. I think, for me, social media expanding my “real” social life has everything to do with my personality, and as such, I’d have still wanted face time even if facebook gave me the perfect excuse to be “hands off.” Social media has enriched my life, while exploiting it at the same time. Do I care? Not really. Trade off was worth it…

  15. admin says:

    Hi Suzanne,

    That’s exactly the way I hope it works too. You reconnect and then translate that into the real world. I think I’m particularly sensitive to the intrusion of technology cause I spend so much time looking at what’s coming. And with the exponential growth of social media and new technology that will create even more screen time in our lives (Augmented Reality being one), I fear it’s easy to get swept up in it all. And even if we don’t, the next generation (as in my iPod listening, Club Penguin playing girls) will spend more time in cyberspace than we’d ever dream of doing. Maybe I’m being too much of a wary parent (and marketer charged with influencing people using technology) but when you see all the different things coming at once and the speed of current growth, it really feels like an overwhelming force. Fortunately, human nature has a long history of rectifying bad habits even if its only out of survival. I’ll put my trust in that. Thanks so much for chatting, Simon

  16. admin says:

    Hi Suzanne,

    That’s exactly the way I hope it works too. You reconnect and then translate that into the real world. I think I’m particularly sensitive to the intrusion of technology cause I spend so much time looking at what’s coming. And with the exponential growth of social media and new technology that will create even more screen time in our lives (Augmented Reality being one), I fear it’s easy to get swept up in it all. And even if we don’t, the next generation (as in my iPod listening, Club Penguin playing girls) will spend more time in cyberspace than we’d ever dream of doing. Maybe I’m being too much of a wary parent (and marketer charged with influencing people using technology) but when you see all the different things coming at once and the speed of current growth, it really feels like an overwhelming force. Fortunately, human nature has a long history of rectifying bad habits even if its only out of survival. I’ll put my trust in that. Thanks so much for chatting, Simon

  17. dustin d s says:

    Simon, I share your concern as a parent. I find it funny now that my 15 yr old son will turn the laptop away from my view as I walk up, just as I stretched the phone cord pulling the phone further away from my mom when i was a teen. I have to scold him to “get off of facebook” just like I was scolded to get off the phone. At times it makes me question the depth of the relationships he’s building, but I quickly realize he’s chatting with 3-4 people simultaneously and reading tens to hundreds of status updates from friends and acquaintances keeping him in touch with family and friends across the country and around the globe. I guess I’d be more concerned if he wasn’t constantly begging to be out of the house in face to face interaction with friends. I really feel like he’s grown his circle beyond those simply in his proximity (school/neighborhood), and has continued to stay in touch and get in touch with people that truly shares his common interests and values.

  18. dustin d s says:

    Simon, I share your concern as a parent. I find it funny now that my 15 yr old son will turn the laptop away from my view as I walk up, just as I stretched the phone cord pulling the phone further away from my mom when i was a teen. I have to scold him to “get off of facebook” just like I was scolded to get off the phone. At times it makes me question the depth of the relationships he’s building, but I quickly realize he’s chatting with 3-4 people simultaneously and reading tens to hundreds of status updates from friends and acquaintances keeping him in touch with family and friends across the country and around the globe. I guess I’d be more concerned if he wasn’t constantly begging to be out of the house in face to face interaction with friends. I really feel like he’s grown his circle beyond those simply in his proximity (school/neighborhood), and has continued to stay in touch and get in touch with people that truly shares his common interests and values.

  19. dustin d s says:

    Oh, and as always, great blogpost…

  20. dustin d s says:

    Oh, and as always, great blogpost…

  21. admin says:

    Thanks Dustin,

    It’s funny how the marketer in me clashes with the parent in me raising the same concerns. As if digital intimacy wasn’t cause for concern enough, the way the next generation multi-task their communication is startling to me (just as you described with your son). To me, while this is obviously the new speed of communication and seems perfectly natural to them, it seems the relatives remoteness of digital intimacy (compared to face time) is exacerbated by the fact its happening on several fronts all at once. We should not be surprise if we lose eye contact with the next generation even during face time. I already watch my daughters friends talking to each other while playing a game on a computer while texting at the same time. What it all means for our quality of life is hard to say, and its almost impossible to judge another’s experience of life, but looking at life through a screen (big small or mobile) does seem one step removed from the innate appeal of direct experience. Let’s hope the quality of their experience expands with their reach, and we all have nothing to worry about. I also have great faith in human nature’s ability to find balance as heather mentioned above. Great chatting and hope all is well, Simon

  22. admin says:

    Thanks Dustin,

    It’s funny how the marketer in me clashes with the parent in me raising the same concerns. As if digital intimacy wasn’t cause for concern enough, the way the next generation multi-task their communication is startling to me (just as you described with your son). To me, while this is obviously the new speed of communication and seems perfectly natural to them, it seems the relatives remoteness of digital intimacy (compared to face time) is exacerbated by the fact its happening on several fronts all at once. We should not be surprise if we lose eye contact with the next generation even during face time. I already watch my daughters friends talking to each other while playing a game on a computer while texting at the same time. What it all means for our quality of life is hard to say, and its almost impossible to judge another’s experience of life, but looking at life through a screen (big small or mobile) does seem one step removed from the innate appeal of direct experience. Let’s hope the quality of their experience expands with their reach, and we all have nothing to worry about. I also have great faith in human nature’s ability to find balance as heather mentioned above. Great chatting and hope all is well, Simon

  23. Excellent and articulate, very well put and you pose a number of very important questions and scenarios that as marketers and human beings, we all need to take some time to think about. What I feel you failed to mention is the sheer speed at which our world revolves, I am not referring to the axis in which it rotates physically but to the blurring speed in which we are expected to perform our duties and the sheer volume of tasks those duties involve. This is why social media has become so prevailing. It is the only way we are able to eke in some time to have any form of interaction. It allows us to maintain the speed in which we work and to interact at the same time, the very fact that it exists only strengthens the demand for every second of our day. Why go meet at the cafe when you have been IMing all day, why discuss ideas face to face when you have been emailing them back and fourth all day, so on and so fourth…

    We all need to make a conscious effort to force one another to stop allowing the social networks to be our conduit for interaction and get in front of one another so that we may once again have that human bond in which we have been communicating through for eons.

    However how will that impact the speed and attention that is demanded from us now that we work in this new hyper environment?

    There needs to be a balance of the two, I do not know what that is but perhaps you can help us see what that world looks like?

  24. Excellent and articulate, very well put and you pose a number of very important questions and scenarios that as marketers and human beings, we all need to take some time to think about. What I feel you failed to mention is the sheer speed at which our world revolves, I am not referring to the axis in which it rotates physically but to the blurring speed in which we are expected to perform our duties and the sheer volume of tasks those duties involve. This is why social media has become so prevailing. It is the only way we are able to eke in some time to have any form of interaction. It allows us to maintain the speed in which we work and to interact at the same time, the very fact that it exists only strengthens the demand for every second of our day. Why go meet at the cafe when you have been IMing all day, why discuss ideas face to face when you have been emailing them back and fourth all day, so on and so fourth…

    We all need to make a conscious effort to force one another to stop allowing the social networks to be our conduit for interaction and get in front of one another so that we may once again have that human bond in which we have been communicating through for eons.

    However how will that impact the speed and attention that is demanded from us now that we work in this new hyper environment?

    There needs to be a balance of the two, I do not know what that is but perhaps you can help us see what that world looks like?

  25. admin says:

    Thanks Craig,

    I have to say I agree. As much as I am a devotee of social media and a marketer by trade, what always attracted me about advertising was the power of emotional connection. So while it seems contradictory, one hand I feel the need to protect or at least champion authentic connection while on the other I use social in advertising. Clearly I believe there is a third alternative where tolls like social media are used responsibly by marketers but that is far too infrequent and I risk sounding naive.

    I also agree that social media is a necessary evil in one sense as the pace of our lives is so accelerated. Slowing that down is an even more impossible task than keeping social media (in the hands of marketers like me) honest.

    Ultimately everyone will filter information as they need to and determine their own level of engagement. I suspect for the next generation the threshold will be much higher than ours. In my book that comes at a price but they won’t know any different. As we further immerse ourselves in the parallel universe of online living, let’s hope marketers stay (relatively) honest, human nature (occasionally) screams for direct experience, and we remember that ultimately its hearts and minds we connect through and not technology.

    Thanks and great to be in touch. Simon

  26. admin says:

    Thanks Craig,

    I have to say I agree. As much as I am a devotee of social media and a marketer by trade, what always attracted me about advertising was the power of emotional connection. So while it seems contradictory, one hand I feel the need to protect or at least champion authentic connection while on the other I use social in advertising. Clearly I believe there is a third alternative where tolls like social media are used responsibly by marketers but that is far too infrequent and I risk sounding naive.

    I also agree that social media is a necessary evil in one sense as the pace of our lives is so accelerated. Slowing that down is an even more impossible task than keeping social media (in the hands of marketers like me) honest.

    Ultimately everyone will filter information as they need to and determine their own level of engagement. I suspect for the next generation the threshold will be much higher than ours. In my book that comes at a price but they won’t know any different. As we further immerse ourselves in the parallel universe of online living, let’s hope marketers stay (relatively) honest, human nature (occasionally) screams for direct experience, and we remember that ultimately its hearts and minds we connect through and not technology.

    Thanks and great to be in touch. Simon

  27. Hi Simon. This is the first post of yours that I’ve read – great thoughts! Where did you find that picture?

  28. Hi Simon. This is the first post of yours that I’ve read – great thoughts! Where did you find that picture?

  29. admin says:

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for having a read and nice to meet you. I found this images here:
    http://imgur.com/tRnNd.png

    It was done by Ji lee. Hope all is well Simon

  30. admin says:

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for having a read and nice to meet you. I found this images here:
    http://imgur.com/tRnNd.png

    It was done by Ji lee. Hope all is well Simon

  31. […] week’s post about digital intimacy generated some great debate about how our lives have been changed by social […]

  32. Craigelimeliah says:

    I thought you may enjoy this little experiment http://www.cnbc.com/id/49859371/

    here is my stream: http://www.pananorama.com/index.html?page=CraigElimeliah

  33. […] blogger named Simon Mainwaring recently posted an interesting piece discussing our digital versus inter-personal relationships. This, of course, would not have been a […]

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