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Common Knowledge
Anti-social media: Be my friend No. 3,467
By John Zipperer

Downtown BART and Muni stations have sported some rather curious ads over the past few months. A major smart-phone company is seeking to entice new customers by stressing what it must believe to be the major strength of its product: support for popular social media applications.

In the process the company is making some fun applications sound boring and trivial, which I think undercuts the sales pitch. The idea is that you can get your friends’ tweets, Facebook updates, and text messages without having to do something difficult, such as go to a regular computer or, frankly, use any other smart phone, all of which already allow you to do these things.

The significant thing about this ad campaign is that, really, there’s nothing significant about what it offers. If the company wanted to convince you to buy the phone, shouldn’t they tell you it’s indispensable? For example, if the ads featured people receiving a useful text message – “Look out behind you!” or “The cops know everything; flee now!” – that would make buyers more likely to think they have to have this phone.

Instead, the ads in the BART station show such spectacularly unimportant text messages as, “Relaxing at a cafe,” or “Just got flowers delivered at work.” Is that worth my shelling out money for the phone? I’m not even sure it’s worth my time to read and delete the messages. At its most pervasive, much of social media is simply uninteresting. I can live without knowing that you just stubbed your toe or opened a brewski. Even if you are my mother.

Or perhaps you’re the president of the United States? In a Hampton University commencement speech this spring, President Obama tried to sound timely and technologically illiterate at the same time, referring to “iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations – none of which I know how to work.” We can assume this Blackberry-addicted politician was using some self-deprecating poetic license. As of late May, he had nearly 4 million followers on Twitter and more than 8.2 million fans on Facebook. All bosom buddies, no doubt. Whether called “friends” or “fans,” those millions are really names on a campaign marketing list now.

Let’s face it, in many ways, social media is the latest pressure campaign to make people think their lives aren’t worthwhile unless they participate. The new twist that people are trying to sell us is that social media actually changes your world – if you’ve got 3,466 friends, you are somehow more popular than everyone else. Also, those 3,466 friends are supposed to all feel special for being connected to you, but it’s sort of like feeling special because you once dated Tiger Woods.

I hope we’ll be able to clear up some of that on June 23, when The Commonwealth Club will host Nicholas Carr, who asked, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in a 2008 Atlantic cover story. This skeptic will look at the changes to the way people think as a result of using Wikipedia, Google’s applications, and more. But just a couple hours before Carr speaks, the same event will feature social-media booster David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. (You would already know this, of course, if you followed The Commonwealth Club on Twitter or Facebook.) Between the two of those two speakers, we’ll try to get some clarity about the hopes and hype of social media.

I’ve been a technology journalist for many years, and I’m leaning to the “hype” conclusion.
Ostentatious devotion to new technologies is nothing new. When I was on a business trip to Atlanta many years ago – back before everyone had a cell phone – all of us in the subway car were treated to one man talking loudly into his phone. Though this is normally an annoyance, this time it was amusing, because the man was clearly just calling someone to show everyone around him on the subway car that he was very special for having a phone. Unfortunately for him, the person he called wasn’t playing along, so the caller’s end of the conversation, which we all got to hear, was: “No, I’m just calling to see how it’s going … Nothing’s wrong, I just wanted to call and … no, so what’s happening there? … I said I just wanted to talk to … hello? Hello?”

Eventually the unusual becomes the mundane. In a recent BART commute, I glanced at the woman seated next to me because I heard clicking, and I saw that she was feverishly texting on her cell phone. I made a surreptitious look to my other side, where my neighbor was busy pounding in endless text messages into his phone.

Cell phones or social media – it might not matter. Whatever technology we have at our disposal, our subway rides are clearly too boring.

John Zipperer is vice president of editorial and media at The Commonwealth Club of California,

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