In defense of social media

The other day I had a conversation with a group of people with mixed experience in the sphere of social media. I found myself defending social media. Here’s why…

Some nay-sayers hate the internet. They say that we’re losing our ability to connect on a human-to-human level and that this is the fault of things like Facebook and Twitter. Instead of talking to each other like we used to back in the golden days of fences and neighbours and cups of tea, we ignore the people around us and revert into a computer world at the expense of ‘true connection’.

I agree. We have become more insular in this modern society of ours. I also believe that social media is an opportunity to enhance ‘true connection’, not diminish it.


Social media facilitates the formation of communities of interest, unconstrained by geographical location. Information is power and now power can be shared at the click of a button.

The distributed network that is inherent in social media allows for the democratisation of information. This democratisation is removing the asymmetry of power that comes with centralisation, reducing the iron grip on information of those who have traditionally held it – the gatekeepers.

It is why we are seeing the sunset of the music industry in its existing form. It is why the publishing industry is set to follow suit. It is why the old media are struggling to retain relevancy. The struggles we are seeing – from mass violations of copyright through e-piracy, to the many and varied attempts at exercising what vestiges of societal power remain to the old captains of creative industry – are functions of a system that is in the throes of adaptation.

Is it a sunset of the past or the sunrise of the future?

Much has been said of the power that social networking sites had during the Christchurch earthquake and then the Japan earthquake. A distributed network of individuals was able to capture and share information, and create online communities of interest at a far greater rate than the old media could ever hope to.

As that terrifying event unfolded, I was glued to Facebook and Twitter for scraps of information. I found out all sorts of things that were not yet available on the mainstream media via the #eqnz hashtag on Twitter. At one point I was able to call my parents, who had been evacuated from their house in Sumner and were staying with family across town, to tell them about a community meeting that had been organised by earthquake officials about the evacuations. A lot of important information ended up being transmitted at that meeting. I found out about that meeting on Twitter.

You probably heard about the University of Canterbury Student Volunteer Army; a not-for-profit collection of highly organised, highly mobilised and highly effective volunteers. The Volunteer Army deployed throughout the the city in the aftermath of the quake. They shovelled silt, delivered port-a-loos and provided all manner of vital support. At one point, the Ministry of Social Development even had the Volunteer Army supplementing their own staff delivering welfare information to hard hit Christchurch suburbs.

And it’s still going. From what I can see, the ‘shopfront’ of this lean mean volunteering machine is all run off Facebook. Each day the organisers use their Facebook page to update their volunteers with what work needs doing, where they need to be and when. The Volunteer Army has been a vital part of the post-quake recovery in Christchurch and it’s hard to see how it could have mobilised and operated so efficiently in the absence of social media.

In addition to the enabling effect of social media for the Volunteer Army,  social media and the distributed network are a massive boon for creativity and art.

My number one celebrity crush, Amanda Palmer, dubbed the ‘Social Media Queen of Rock and Roll’ by the Huffington Post, is a recent Shorty Award finalist in the Category of Connecting People.

Amanda Palmer was nominated because:

She has embraced social media, and Twitter in particular, to stay connected with her fans as the recording industry struggles to stay relevent. Palmer uses her verified Twitter account to share photos, concert information, and dispatches from her travels and day-to-day life.

I happen to love Amanda Palmer’s music, although that is beside the point. It is the business model she uses that I find compelling. It is highly creative and it is powered entirely by social media. More about it here if you’re interested.

I also recommend you check out her address at Harvard University where she speaks on ‘Toward a Patronage Society’:

In this address, she states:

I have a deep belief that if artists have faith in their audiences, that it may not be every single passerby, but even if one in fifty people or one in a hundred people who pass by like what you have to offer, you can make a living.

There are heaps of other cool social media connectivity case studies on the Shorty Awards site, including winner Shannon Miller, a school district librarian and technology specialist who uses social media tools to help local students connect with their favorite authors, as well as with other students and educators around the globe.

The potential of social media to enhance our ability to connect and to create is immense.

We still have neighbours, it’s just that now we’re not constrained by pesky things like geography and the space-time continuum.

Your thoughts?

Is social media awesome or the devil’s tool?

What are your positive experiences with social media?

What about experiences with social media that make you wish that Al Gore had never invented the internet superconnecto?


About maximumbrooks

Christine is currently based in Wellington, New Zealand. She improvises regularly at venues around town and dabbles in other things that interest her. She likes mango sorbet, monkeys and, apparently, throwing caution to the wind.
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4 Responses to In defense of social media

  1. Erin Harrington says:

    I had an argument about this recently, with someone stating that they felt that modern technologies (in this case texting and IMing) had taken away moral values and manners and common courtesy and so on, and that people should go back to the telephone… Never minding the ridiculousness of calling anything the ‘good old days’, and the historic complaints about the telephone (and things like the radio, and then the television, and then computers) destroying face to face communication and turning us all into horrible people, it totally ignored the fact that people dictate how many forms of media work, not vice versa. Cellphone companies didn’t introduce texting as a way to fleece teenagers of their pocket money, or as a way of subverting or even augmenting voice-based communication – they introduced SMS in part to alert users of things like network outages. They had no idea that the phone using public – especially younger people – would appropriate the technology in the same way, and in doing so shape future generations of phones (and the ways in which telcos make money and retain customers) and alter the trajectory of mobile communications, especially in NZ where the uptake of texting was huge in part because of the prohibitive expense of regular cell phone calls. I find there’s a similar argument with social media – Facebook didn’t put a gun to anyone’s heads, it filled a niche that (arguably) sites like Bebo, MySpace and even Livejournal filled for a while, or failed to adequately fill in the long term as people’s expectations of social media adapted and changed as home computers and internet connections became relatively affordable and widespread. Social media is pretty much the perfect example of the law of unexpected consequences, and the uptake and use of social media sites and technologies are driven by human agents for better or worse. How many people moaning about how Facebook ruins lives would have ever have thought that, as you say, would be the means of organising enormous numbers of volunteers, donations, and general grass roots participation?

    • I think you are right on the money.

      Humans dictate (and transform – as you note) how technology is used. How they relate to that technology tends to say more about the workman than his or her tool.

      That is until the machines get smarter than the humans and they overthrow their human masters. AI scares the shit out of me.

      On the adaptation of technologies and unintended consequences: I expect the military industrial complex behind developing the first networked computers never could have imagined what the technology would evolve into and its world changing application for individual citizens.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Erin!

  2. Chelsea says:

    I’m a big fan of social media, in both my private and professional lives. I think social media, when used in particular ways, actually promotes physical connection and communication, eg Tweetups. Just recently a secret Facebook group I belong to for new mothers living in Wellington met up at the Southern Cross for one of their weekly Mums and Bubs morning get-togethers. Nearly 30 mums with their bubs turned up. I met people I would never have met without the Facebook group. I have tons of examples just like this one.

    The internet (and social media) is great for staying connected to my family and friends back in the States, where I’m originally from. Good ol’ letter-writing and telephone calls just don’t cut it. I can post photos and videos to Flickr, update my Facebook and Twitter statuses with my bubba’s latest developments. Skype provides video chats that have proven invaluable to us. It’s not face-to-face, but it’s a damn good alternative.

    Professionally, I have used social media to create a more meaningful relationships with our customers. It has put a human face on what some would see as an anonymous public institution.

    I have a pretty hopeless view of people who deny the value of social media. If they “just don’t get it” I don’t think they ever will. Obviously naysayers are disguising their discomfort/ignorance about social media as disdain. They are predominantly older people. And if I’ve learned anything about getting older (not THAT old) it’s that change becomes more and more difficult for people to embrace as they get older. I don’t think it’s impossible for people to learn new things, including social media, but it takes a real willingness. They also seem to long for a bygone era, and you can’t look backward and forward at the same time.

    • Do you think our generation’s exposure to faster moving technology in our more formative years will make us more adaptable to new technologies than older generations have been? Or will we, in our turn, be harking back to the good ol’ days of Facebook and Twitter once the kids are onto something new we can’t even comprehend or imagine? I’d like to think it’s the former.

      Which gets me thinking, when do we hit the asymptotic limit on Metcalfe’s Law and/or Moore’s Law? Is there a point at which this technology will stop evolving so quickly and stabilise? What happens then?

      Will this be at the same point as our robotic soon-to-be-overlords execute their coup? [earlier paranoid comment refers]

      Thanks for your comments, Chelsea!

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