What if social media makes us less connected?

Social Media Makes Us Less Social

I just ran 3 miles — goals, baby, goals! — to begin the final page of 2015, and along the way (in between alternating between DMX, Jason Mraz, Taylor Swift, and 2Pac) I started thinking about social media and connectivity and networking and personal branding and all that. Why? Because I’m an inherently awkward person, probably.

Here’s the series of thoughts I had. Bear with me.

Step 1: We’re often told how ‘hyper-connected’ our world is these days. I think that’s definitely true in pockets — for example, I check all my social media profiles a couple of times per day — but then there’s stats like “Half of Americans don’t know what a podcast is.” Think about this in another way: let’s say you’re a huge fan of Saturday Night Live and know all the casts and everything, right? Give or take, SNL gets 6M/7M viewers a week in the U.S. That’s 1 percent of America. You might assume “Oh, everyone knows about this thing, the Twitter thing!” but in reality, the people you know are the ones who know about it. We all live in bubbles. It’s a media narrative that we’re all hyper-connected because the media has to be on social media (see that second word of ‘social media?’), in part because it gives them a massive distribution channel that didn’t exist even 10-15 years ago.

Step 2: So let’s assume we’re halfway to hyper-connected, give or take. The thing is, most people have a LinkedIn or a Facebook or a Twitter (by “most” we’re still talking under 50 percent, although higher for FB), even if they use it to look at other things or only periodically check it. People check these boxes — “Yep, I’ve got a LinkedIn!” — because it seems like something you’re supposed to do, and at a certain level we’re all obligers to a higher concept. Go read Gretchen Rubin’s newest book for more on that.

Step 3: The first dirty little secret. When you try to network or connect with someone, which is a fraught experience in its own right, one thing they will often tell you is “Connect with me on LinkedIn!” or “Add me on Twitter!” (Or, they’ll offer to do the same for you.) That’s awesome in that it’s a connection and you can see their thoughts and articles and postings — and vice versa — but remember: ‘business,’ as we construe it, has been and always will be face-to-face and person-to-person. Social media is great for being connected, but note that first word: ‘being.’ It’s a semi-passive state. Social media, in and of itself, is not a real relationship. The dirty little secret, then, is that ‘influencers’ can ‘connect’ with you on one of these channels — and then, quite easily, never pay you any mind again. That’s not really connection. That’s like going to a friend’s birthday party at a bar, saying hi quickly, and leaving. We’ve all done that, and with Twitter and LinkedIn, we all periodically do that professionally and contextually.

Step 4: Compare and contrast this with ‘the past.’ If you wanted to make legitimate connections back in the day (even 20 years ago), you had to work at it. Calls, coffee meetings, happy hours, e-mails, follow-through, etc. You had to get down on the f’n deck networking-wise. Mindshare! Dunbar’s Number! Etc. Now it’s so easy. You hit a button and you’ve ‘followed’ or ‘connected’ with someone. “OK, we good here! Back to my daily deliverables!”

Step 5: The breathless analysis of ‘what social media represents.’ We can do this until we’re all six feet under, and the fact is social media will probably evolve another 97 times — Virtual Reality, baby! — but it’s probably making the rat race even worse and it’s probably making us depressed and all that, no? What I worry about, i.e. what I wrote above, is that it’s making it hard for people with good ideas and the need to connect with certain individuals to actually do that. It’s become too easy for someone to say “Well, I added him on LinkedIn!” That means nothing. It’s a static action. Unless you add him on LinkedIn and recommend him, introduce him to a few people, and comment on his posts — that would make it a dynamic action — then it’s just a button click. What does it mean?

Step 6: The flip side. Many people, of course, have connected to brands and influencers via social media. I’ve had some success (not a ton) at doing this myself since I’ve been blogging. But there’s a lot of clutter, it’s hard to cut through, and it’s a bit too easy to assume “following someone on Twitter” is akin to “developing a relationship with them.”

What’s your takeaway here — social media good for connection, or a little bit lukewarm? (And yes, of course all the networks are different and have different functionalities, and predominantly above I’m speaking about LinkedIn and Twitter.)

Ted Bauer