Whither Social Media: 2014 Update

Frolic HawaiiIt’s been a long, long time since social media was the “next big thing.” Facebook celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and it was hardly the first social platform. Diane Seo of Frolic Hawaii (formerly Nonstop Honolulu) wanted to know whether people who embraced these tools early on were still fans… notably after Gene Park, the “engagement editor” at local news startup Civil Beat, told her he wasn’t. She interviewed Gene, Melissa Chang, Catherine Toth and me for an article posted yesterday titled, “Let’s talk about social media.”

It was a good sampling of opinions from each of us, with Catherine saying she has “very mixed feelings” about social media to Melissa saying she is grateful for social media and owes everything to it. Diane herself weighed in, saying social media can “often feel awkward and uncomfortable” to her, but that, “It’s a must, and I understand its power.”

Here are my full answers to her questions. Thanks, Diane, for the opportunity to opine!

In general, how do you feel about social media? Do you love it, just like it, dislike it or a combination? Why?

I love it. But I love it in the way a musician might love an instrument or a carpenter a tool. Because really it’s a way to create things or explore things that I love. And if there’s another tool that lets me do the same thing, I’d just as easily drop what I’m using to try it as well. I often say I hate Facebook. As a business, as a platform, as a tool, it annoys and frustrates me. But it’s also the primary way I get to interact with awesome people, so I put up with it. It’s like going to a crummy restaurant with lousy food and service… it’s still worth it if you get to hang out with your best friends.

About when did you first start on social media and what drew you in?

It depends on how you define it. I started on dial-up BBSes (and ran one for years), I was exploring and posting on Gopher and USENET before the web. And what drew me in is probably what draws everyone: a way to stay connected with friends and to make new ones. I still keep in touch with people I interacted with via 2400 baud modems in the ’80s, or argued with on USENET in the ’90s. Is a forum or bulletin board “social media”? I might start there. If you’re talking about things in the vein of Facebook and Twitter, I guess I started on precursors like Ryze and Friendster and Tribe.net, maybe 2002 or 2003?

Why do you continue to be active on social media?

I’m there because my friends — and interesting people who I wish were my friends — are there. Whether it’s a website or an app or a tool, pretty much the first thing I try to do with it is connect with people and see how it might help make new connections. And my eagerness to do so is probably why I neurotically try to get my hands on them early.

As time goes on, has your feelings about social media changed?

I often joke I’ve got an “inner cranky old man” where other people have an “inner child.” And among early adopters, there’s definitely an urge to say that you liked this band or that song before it became “cool.” I definitely crave being part of the early users in a community because that’s when it’s cozy and everyone knows everyone else and everyone’s in the same boat, figuring things out together. Facebook in 2004? Twitter in 2006? They were like New York in the 1600s. Kind of messy and small, very much the the wild west, but you could also feel the potential, and the hope — and fear — that they could become today’s Manhattan.

I have to try to separate my immature elitism with my idealism. I don’t have to like or pay attention to how other people use these tools, as long as I get what I need out of them, right? I push back against blatant commercialism, but I also have to imagine part of that is because I’m not exactly successful at turning my passion for social media into money. I love the freedom and anarchy out there, as long as it doesn’t crowd out or silence someone else. I strive for a “live and let live” path, but get grumpy often!

Do you feel that “friends” and “followers” you’ve acquired on social media are meaningful connections or superficial?

Absolutely. But certainly I make an effort to extend online relationships into “IRL” ones as often as possible. Users of my BBS would hang out or plan parties, and today many of us are still friends (or even married each other). But I’ve countless stories of people who’ve never met still finding a real connection online. Stuff I published on Gopher or USENET had inspired people to visit or move to Hawaii, changing the course of their lives. Stories I’ve posted about one of our son’s medical challenges — or blog posts my wife wrote about her cancer experience — still spark beautiful or heartbreaking messages from strangers around the world, glad to have a very real sense that they’re not alone. Twitter and Facebook have sparked romances to create families, and sparked fires that destroy them. And while I’m too old to really get Tumblr or Snapchat, I am absolutely certain that there’s as much “real life” going on as anywhere else in the virtual space.

Am I very close and personal friends with every person I’m connected to on Twitter or Facebook? No. But what amazing platforms. Successful writers often say that if just one person is touched by their book, even if it was read by millions of people, telling the story was worth it. And with social media, that one person — or many one persons — can comment, or tweet you back, and who knows what can happen after that.

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