Social media’s phantom menace

My latest column, about how passion for social media has turned into hysteria.

By Jesse Ferreras, Pique Newsmagazine

February 24, 2011

Meet Darth Luddite.

Like fellow Sith lords, he wears a black cloak with a hood, has menacing yellow eyes and he carries a red lightsabre. He’s stealthy, he’s fierce and he’s influential.

Where he differs from his brethren is in the targets of his evildoing. Where more aggressive brothers like Vader and Maul get their kicks from Jedicide, Darth Luddite has a different victim in his sights. He has it out for social media and he’s hell bent on keeping as many people as possible from signing on to it. He’s the devil on the shoulder of everyone who’s unsure of joining the Twitterverse.

He sounds scary… except for the fact he doesn’t exist. But you won’t hear that from self-proclaimed social media “gurus” who constantly raise the spectre of technological dinosaurs that are skeptical about spending untold hours communicating through the Internet.

Darth Luddite has manifested himself in many ways. At the Grammy Awards last weekend, the time delay of the show broadcast from coast to coast meant that a live blog on Grammys.com would be calibrated specifically to the east and west coast time zones.

The blog, for example, would only e updated as the West Coast broadcast played out on television, meaning viewers in areas such as Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles got updates well after people watching in New York.

Cory Bergman, a writer with MSNBC and lostremote.com, chastised the show organizers for not synchronizing the live blog so that people could read it as it unfolded on television in the east. He opened that “you can’t tape delay social media” and warned that ratings could drop as a result. It was as though Darth stood on the shoulder of a Grammy programmer and held him back from allowing the live blog on the West Coast.

Bergman, it seems, didn’t think to click on the “#grammys” hashtag on Twitter and get his updates that way. Instead he had to take a cheap shot at awards show organizers who just aren’t as cool as he is.

Closer to Whistler, I saw a similar example last week. Paul Chapman, a video games columnist with The Province newspaper, took to his Twitter and ripped into some local sports writers for not having their own accounts. Referring to sportscasters Dave Tomlinson, David Pratt and Don Taylor, he said he enjoyed their work but that they were “delinquent in their job(s).”

A writer without Twitter, he wrote, was like a golfer who refused to use a putter. The analogy was a step away from a Thomas Friedman-like metaphor that not using Twitter was like driving a car without a steering wheel.

Again, Darth Luddite worked his black magic: to Chapman, he was whispering in the ears of Tomlinson, Pratt and Taylor and persuading them not to use social media. Maybe it didn’t occur to Chapman that they might just not want to. They each have busy jobs and their work is readily accessible on television and radio. Perhaps Chapman didn’t realize that there might not be any fatal consequences if they remained there.

Social media, it should be said, is doing just fine as an industry when it comes to its major players. As of 2009, Facebook, Inc. drew revenue of $800 million US. That, of course, doesn’t take into account the company’s operating costs (it has over 2,000 employees worldwide and requires almost infinite bandwidth to keep going) but that’s nevertheless an impressive cash flow.

It has 600 million members as of January 2011 and is adding more subscribers daily.

Twitter, meanwhile, isn’t as lucrative a venture as Facebook but it’s doing just fine. Its revenue for 2010 is projected at about $150 million US. Again, that’s not profit, but its operating costs must be lower than Facebook’s since it only has 351 employees.

Then, of course, there’s the Huffington Post, which is more social media than journalism because its contributions come from untrained volunteers. Despite only turning its first profit in 2010 after five years in business, the Post’s reach and influence was worth $315 million to AOL, which purchased it earlier this month. It may not be profitable, but the influence of a social media outlet is a hot commodity.

The way they talk about non-subscribers, you would think that social media enthusiasts were worried about the industry dying. Near as my untrained eye can tell, it is thriving. It is thus unnecessary and irrelevant, the debate that social media “gurus” have concocted around their medium. There is no debate to be had. Advocates have simply made one up.

We all know social media isn’t going away. I’m logged into Facebook and Twitter 24/7, as are several of my friends. It is a great way to stay connected with people both close and far away. We need it as a way to maintain that connection.

What we don’t’ need is this ridiculous, fluid, empty conversation about social media that casts non-users as idiots under the spell of a devil. There are simply people out there who prefer not to communicate through the Internet. That’s okay. There’s no urgency for them to wire in and there are no terrible consequences if they don’t.

Social media will press on without them. And so, frankly, should its enthusiasts.

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About jesseferreras

Sea to Sky-based journalist. Snowboarder, cyclist, cinephile, bon vivant.
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