The Purpose of Social Media

Posted on November 24, 2012

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Why do I bother?

During the election, I let myself go on Facebook.  I posted a lot and stirred the pot as much as I could.  It’s possible that I’ve pissed off more than a few people in the process.  I want to apologize to those people: it was not my intent to offend or upset anyone.  I cannot apologize for the things that I said — they represent my thoughts and beliefs — but I am sorry that our discussions had to offend anyone.  I don’t know that it could have been avoided, but I’m sorry nonetheless.

Upon reflection, however, I find the topic to be more complicated than that.  I mean, why do people get so worked up about a post on Facebook?  Why does it matter that I disagree with your beliefs?  Who cares if you vote for one guy or another, or not at all?  And how is it that Americans value their First Amendment rights, but get so offended when someone else exercises theirs?

In other words, why do I continue to engage people in this way?  What’s the point of it all?

The internet has been around since the 1960’s; it was during the 1990’s that instant messaging, e-mailing and social networking began growing into the beast it is today.  “As of 2011, more than 2.2 billion people—nearly a third of Earth’s Human population—used the services of the Internet.”  Facebook has over one billion active users.  Twitter has over 500 million users.  And then there’s Digg, Stumbleupon and Reddit, to name a few.  I think it’s safe to say that more than a few people are using social media and that they’re formed more than a few online communities.

Yet there’s still a debate among marketing researchers and sociologists about its impact.  I understand their main argument: services like Facebook and Twitter are too popular to be an effective approach to marketing.  If you’re going to use them, you have to apply specific techniques to ensure you get a good return for your investment.  Or the internet is too impersonal to be a good replacement for face-to-face relationships.  But what does this have to do with me?  I’m not marketing anything — not yet anyway — so what purpose does social media serve?  Why do I spend so much time on Facebook engaging in discussions that irritate the crap out of people?

There are three reasons:

  1. Promoting myself as a writer.
  2. Building social connections.
  3. Engaging my community.

The first is fairly self-explanatory.  I write on this blog (and others) to maintain and develop my skill as a writer.  I publish my posts to Facebook so people can read them.  I will write a book someday; when that happens I want to have an audience, even if it’s just friends and family, so I can promote my work.  I might be more successful if I avoid controversial topics, or if I try to be more accommodating of people’s views; then again, people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly don’t typically use that approach and they sell lots of books.  (I know, there’s no comparison because they’re established with media networks backing their work and I’m not.  My point is that people will purchase and/or read books about sensitive subjects, that contain views they disagree with, because… well, I don’t know why people do it.  I just know that they do, so I’m not worried that offending someone will hurt my potential marketability.)

The second item is important because I’m physically disconnected from friends and family, currently, and I do not know where my future will take me.  And I like these people.  And I like talking about important things.  So I use Facebook.  I read forums and articles.  And I write.  To date, I feel that my social interactions have improved because of these connections.  (Despite having upset some folks…)

The last item, however, is the most important, but it might take me a moment to explain why…

I found this article last week.  It shows the results of a survey on political knowledge.  The survey asked basic questions like, “Which party is known for its platform of reducing the size of the federal government?”  The answers are interesting in that you would expect a question like that to be known to everyone.  But it’s not.  About 76% of respondents, who identify themselves as Republican, correctly answered that question; 46% of Democrats; and 51% of independents.  I’m not sure which number is more surprising.  How can you claim to be a Republican, or a Democrat for that matter, and not know that the Republican party claims to want smaller government?  Hell, how can you be an American citizen and not know that?

This article covers the public perception of religion and politics.  Should a church or its leadership publicly involve itself in politics?  The study suggests an increasing tendency to answer, “no,” to that question.  Yet there can be no doubt that religion has an impact on secular government and politics.  Simple logic is the easiest way to demonstrate this: if a person claims to be Christian, it follows that he will make political decisions based, at least in part, on his beliefs.  If his decisions are in direct opposition to his beliefs, then it stands to reason that he doesn’t really believe.  But if that’s not enough, look at the evidence this article provides.

I believe these facts point to an underlying truth of human nature: we are social creatures and our interactions are part of a necessary process of survival.  For example, ancient cultures came and went through the ages, in part, because they interacted with each other and assimilated their customs, beliefs and mores.  This happened to the Greeks, Celts, Gauls, Sumerians, etc.  Jews and Chinese, however, held on to their culture because they rejected this kind of interaction.  They had laws against assimilation or they only accepted new customs after it was decided that doing so would not hurt the integrity of their society.

Now, I realize I’m all over the map here, so bear with me for a moment: as a Christian, I used to take part in a small gathering of other Christian men.  We called these gatherings Life Transformation Groups.  The intent is to help each of us stay true to our beliefs, to remain accountable to God and each other for our actions, and to generally stay on the path of righteousness.  So, for example, if I was developing a bad relationship with a coworker, I could talk to my men’s group and get advice from them on how to steer that relationship to something good.  I could count on them to tell me when I was behaving badly, or when I was just plain wrong.  This is reflective of how successful societies and organizations have operated throughout all of human history.  When one member gets a wrong idea in his head, the others turn him away from it.  Now I’m not making a judgment call about what is right or wrong; I’m simply saying that this is a technique for forming strong communal bonds.

Consider, then, the communities formed through the internet.  Does having all those friends through Facebook help or hurt your relationships?  When someone posts a meme that runs counter to your beliefs, do you engage them?  Do you ignore them?  Are you taking the opportunity to influence them, or to learn from them?

Consider the previous articles about politics and religion.  The latter data, about the relationship between religion and politics, shows a connection between belief and action.  All people hold beliefs about their world and their actions reflect these beliefs.  (In many cases, I find that people form beliefs based on their actions.  Chicken-or-egg?  Doesn’t matter, really, because they impact each other all the same.)  The former data, about America’s inability to know the basics of its own political parties, shows the need for correction.  If a person holds an (objectively) untrue belief, it’s up to friends and family (the community) to correct that person.

Consider the First Amendment.  Our tendency to form communities based on common beliefs.  The ability to accomplish great things when we’re all on the same page.

Consider all of these things and then tell me that it’s not worth the time to interact with people.

The internet is a tool.  The programs we use on our computers are tools.  We use these tools to establish and maintain social relationships.  These relationships are important because they provide us with the opportunity to learn and grow.  If we reject them because someone said something offensive…

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