Wednesday, July 13, 2011

G+ or not G+?

Thanks to my trendy online friends, I now know about G+. In a world without blogger and twitter, I would have remained blissfully ignorant. Alas, a lovely summer morning is being spent adding yet another bunch of words to the current discourse on the subject.

So G+ is a cleaner version of Facebook. I can see that. Is this what we need? Too early to tell. But what it doesn’t alter is a basic misconception that Facebook is built on.

I watch college kids use social media, and FB is the real world for them. My classroom, I realized last semester, is not an app and is therefore less real. Do I think this is good? Well, it makes teaching a lot harder, but I’m about to retire, and so I pass that one on to educators still laboring in the academic vineyards.

Friends vs. belonging. What bothers me is what keeps getting lost in the many social media worlds now available to us. It’s a sense of community. Real community is where you can't easily opt in and out without some accountability. There's a human need for that kind of belonging that FB, twitter, and G+ can’t or don’t want to replicate.

Each tries to sell you on the idea that you can have a make-believe social life in the absence of a real one. But when I’m one of your 200 online friends, I’m sorry, what we have is probably not a social relationship. Even longer lists of followers on twitter can mean even less. In neither case do the numbers reflect the existence of a community.

Now G+ has circles. Members of a real-world circle usually know each other, and they know you’re in the same circle with them. Social media get around that. They let each of us create a virtual social world of which we are at the center, wrapped in an illusion of belonging. 

Realities and illusion. Social media want you to believe that you are not alone. I’m sorry again, the person who will have lunch with you, go to the movies with you, visit you in the hospital, or loan you their car is the friend who banishes loneliness. Ten to one, the rest are not.

I know, people know that already. But do they? Social media would never have taken off if most people already had enough real friends and a real community to belong to. The key word there is “enough.” There's always that desire for more. And community, I’d argue, is a word that’s lost its meaning.

Social scientists have noted for decades the increasingly isolated lives we live and the every-widening prevalence of depression. Many argue that the media isolate us even further. The young, who are the most socially mediated generation in history, continue to commit suicide in alarming numbers.

The need to belong goes deep. It’s tribal. Social media let you pretend that you belong somewhere, but only virtually. Viscerally, we know it’s a sham.

Selling. As a listener-subscriber to WIIFM (What's In It For Me?), I also see social media’s value if you’ve got something to sell. There’s a way to use them all as marketing channels. And it’s a generally understood rule, I believe, that for credibility a marketing message needs to be on every channel where there are likely to be buyers. So sellers not sold on G+, think again.

But I would add this caveat. Using social media for marketing can be risky business. I draw here on the philosophy of online marketer Seth Godin, whose blog I recommend. He would acknowledge that you need social skills to build credibility with prospective customers. You also need them to maintain trust with those who become your customers.

As in real social relationships, betraying that trust with insincerity, over-promising, or falsehood kills credibility and trust. There’s a fine line there that some folks in the blogs and on FB and twitter don’t seem to recognize. You don’t have to be online long to see social media used as little more than a home shopping network.

For me, the test of good-faith online marketing is a marketer’s generosity. That comes through in acts of giving and supportiveness. It’s also evident in the paying of attention. These are social skills that are also aspects of community.

So you can have success using social media to build a customer base, but the social grounding under marketing can easily be forgotten. Remember that you are piggybacking on a system of social transactions that runs far deeper than your business objectives. Abuse it at your peril.

So G+ or not G+? Depends on whether you can understand its limitations before trying to seize the opportunities you think are there.

Coming up: Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest (1913)


  1. This is a wise and humane essay that goes to the heart of our loneliness amidst the crowds. I treasure my real-life friendships here in a small Montana town. Today I will lunch, as I do every Wednesday, with six to eight other guys: a lawyer, doctor, screenwriter, novelist, scholar, philanthropist, producer of TV single-shot shows such as Miss America pageants, retired retail executive, bookseller, etc. I don't belong to any of the internet social media, apart from the blogging community. I have friends and am a friend.

  2. It's the old, "sell to someone by overpromising and make a buck," or try to build a support base and make very little money but lots of friends. And hopefully that will turn into some bucks down the line. I prefer the second option. I'm gonna stay away from Google plus for nonce.

  3. Excellent essay. Although I would argue that those that use social media as a means of community to compliment our immediate community. Many of those on Facebook that I am friends with aren't people I've met, but I look forward perhaps to meeting them someday. Some are people that I knew in the past and thanks to Facebook, I've reunited with them again.

    The core of friends and family stay the same and I communicate with them through old-fashioned ways: in person or at the very least, on the phone. But I'm glad to have the extended family I have on Facebook, for the people I otherwise wouldn't have known or would have considered lost to the past.

    BTW, I read Gunfighter Nation years ago and used it as one of my scholarly resources for Pulp Writer thesis. I enjoy him, but I know *some* people that have accused him of being close to a Communist!! LOL

  4. Really excellent post. While I enjoy the blogging experience, I've found it difficult to fully engage in the commenting and interaction to the extent that some people seem to. I think it's probably because I have the feeling that however pleasant online acquaintances may be, they're just not the same as those 'real-life' friendships.

    These days, among writers who swear by social networking for marketing, the mantra seems to be "Interaction Sells Books." I'm not entirely comfortable with that idea. For me as a reader, it's ultimately the book itself that matters most - interaction with the author would be a neat extra, especially if I enjoyed the book. I think so much emphasis on interaction-as-marketing puts a lot of stress on the writer, and if it's all done with the object of selling I think it would tend to be even less genuine.

  5. Richard W., your circle of friends is a true gift.

    Charles, that attitude comes through loud and clear from everything you post online. It keeps me checking in and reading what you have to say.

    Laurie, your generosity online is an example of what I'm talking about, and I'd suggest that accounts for the quality of your online relationships.

    Elisabeth, selling is another hat you wear. I don't think trying to wear that hat all the time works for most writers.

  6. Excellent essay, Ron. I can't add or subtract from it, sir.