How not to use the Internet, part 4: how “social” is social media?

<< Part 3: How the Internet’s current design philosophy fails

4. How “social” is social media?

A person who is “social,” we think, gets along with others and does not always stay at home. They mix well. This is, we hope, because they like other people, not because they’re trying to take advantage of them. They have an interest in getting to know others and doing fun things with them.

So I wonder if “social media” is misnamed.

Social media features the trappings of social behavior: conversation (with head shots and indications of mood), sharing interests, and doing things together. But how these activities happen in so-called social media are mostly a weak shadow of what happens face-to-face. The conversation is typically brief. It is rarely one-to-one, but instead one-to-many, rather like broadcasting a message over an intercom to a group of people who are only half-listening and busy broadcasting themselves. We often do not know who, precisely, is receiving our message, and we act as if we do not care. We do not expect a reply, and if we do not receive a reply, we are at worst disappointed; face-to-face, if we received no reply at all, we would think the person we spoke to was rude and cold. In many venues, the conversation happens among literal strangers, often from around the world, which at first glance seems charming—and it sometimes is. But after the novelty wears off, we discover that the rewards are rare. Such interactions rarely involve personal understanding and regard, as friends share.

Conversation online is rarely as meaningful, from a social point of view, as conversation face-to-face among friends and known colleagues. (In terms of logic and rhetoric, I have found that it can be more rigorous and rewarding than much face-to-face conversation. But I’m talking about sociality now, not logic.)

When we get online and engage in “social” media, I wonder how much we—most of us—do so because we like people. I wonder if we do it because we want to use people and promote ourselves. This is not social, properly speaking, any more than PR work is “social.” “Now just a minute, Sanger,” I hear you saying, “you’ve gone too far. I like people. I am not a user. How dare you accuse me, and all users of social media, of being selfish ‘users’?” I apologize if I offend. I did not accuse all users of social media of being “users” of people. That really isn’t my intention. But I have an important point to make and it isn’t pretty. When you do an update, are you acting like a friend, or like a PR agent? I’ll be honest. Personally, I do a lot more PR updates than friendly updates. I find it a little surprising and charming when my friends and acquaintances respond to such updates, but that doesn’t stop them from being, mainly, PR updates. Sure, I understand that some people do mainly engage with their close friends. I think that’s nice (as I said before), as far as it goes. But a lot of what we say is personal advertising, so to speak. Some have even taken to speaking of their online identities, to mind rather pathetically, as their “personal brand,” and they invest much time on social networks buffing their “personal brands.” This behavior is “social” in a very weak sense, in that it involves people, but not in the strong sense that it involves building friendships.

Social media is a poor replacement for a real social life. To the extent that social media is replacing it, friendship as an institution weakens.

Relevant links:

I was tempted to try to coin a phrase, “anti-social media,” but of course someone beat me to it.

On “personal branding,” see this Mashable post.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started,,,, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

2 Responses to "How not to use the Internet, part 4: how “social” is social media?"
  1. Reply Stuart Buck April 24, 2012 07:07 am

    Enjoying the series thus far. The anti-social media bit reminded me of a classic post from Dr. Boli, one of the funniest and most erudite bloggers around (everything he does is a spoof of something, often from Roman history or 19th century literature or botany).


    HERE ARE A number of Frequently Asked Questions about, the new antisocial networking site.

    Q. What is

    A. is the new antisocial networking site.

    Q. What is antisocial networking?

    A. In the spirit of “Web 2.0,” antisocial networking is a new high-tech way for you to keep all your personal information, hobbies, interests, favorite Web sites, and so on, to yourself.

    Q. How do I use it?

    A. It’s really very simple. You just browse the Web as you normally do. When you come to a site that particularly interests you, you write down the address on a 3-by-5 index card and store the card safely in a small box.

    Q. I have a number of these cards prepared. What do I do with them now?

    A. We recommend burning them to ensure your privacy.

    Q. What about my personal information, hobbies, interests, &c.? Should I write those down on index cards, too?

    A. We recommend not even writing those down. It is always possible that, when you burned the index cards, the smoke would rise from the chimney and form letters spelling out the message you had burned, thus making it legible to the world at large. Such an incident was documented in an animated cartoon by the celebrated Fleischer brothers, and we should hate to be responsible for the unintentional disclosure of your private information.

    Q. But if I don’t write down my personal information, how will I remember who I am?

    A. For this purpose we recommend some mnemonic device such as a short rhyme. The renowned classical scholar Benjamin Jowett came up with this little ditty:

    My name is Benjamin Jowett.
    I’m the president of this college.
    If anything’s knowledge, I know it,
    and what I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

    By means of this easily memorized poem he was able to remember, not only his name, but also his employment, and even the attitude he intended to adopt toward his students.

    Q. I tried going to, but my browser says “Cannot find server.” What’s going on?

    A. In order to protect your privacy completely, the domain name has not been registered and is therefore not accessible from the Internet.”

  2. Reply Stuart Buck April 24, 2012 07:16 am

    Ah, here’s another couple of great Dr. Boli posts, on completely different subjects:

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