The internet and the future of culture and society

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this discussion between author Andrew Keen (who is one of the few people in the public sphere who argues that technology is debasing, rather than enhancing, culture) and Leo Laporte and Tom Merritt, hosts of an online technology-focused show called Triangulation.

With discussions being so polarized these days, it refreshing to watch one in which there is a genuine interest in each other’s points of view and a willingness to engage, to think and to provoke thought.

The economy and social media: Bubbles and troubles


Human beings are funny campers. We seem to like repeating history, often not learning from that which has come before, and tending to repeat the same cycles over and again.

The current recession is evidence of that. I was 10 years old when the recession of the early 90s hit the UK and I remember it well. I remember that at the time there was a lot of freely available credit, people were slapping everything on plastic, and property was being snapped up left right and centre. Then boom! It all crashed, and negative equity was the order of the day. Who benefited from the bubble as its high point? Banks and financial companies. 

Nearly 20 years later, and the same cycle was being repeated – easy credit, low interest rates and people spending and snapping up properties, mortgaging themselves up to the hilt thinking that the good times would last forever. Then, once again, boom! And it was back to repossessions and recession. Who benefited from the bubble as its peak? Banks and financial companies. Yes, the same ones who made consumers believe that having tons of credit and a huge mortgage was a good idea for them. 

Maybe at the age of 10, I realized that bubbles meant trouble. When everything suddenly seems as if it’s on a never ending positive rate of climb, there is at the end only one way to go – and that’s down. Why? Because never ending growth is unsustainable. It just isn’t natural – the cycle of life is growth and decay, not ongoing perpetual growth. Notice that, in the human body, when cells grow and grow and grow and multiply without regulation, they call that cancer. 

The same boom and bust happened with the DotCom bubble. It seems to be happening again, this time with Social Media. These bubbles follow the same progression, each and every time, yet each and every time, it is only a handful of people who seem to see what’s really going on. Those issuing the warnings are often ignored – until it is too late. Just today, writer Ewan Morris published an essay in The Guardian outlining why social media isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be for self publishing

Still caught up in the social media madness, many want to believe that this revolution will last until kingdom come. However, with the shares of social gaming company Zynga, Facebook and Groupon at all times lows, it is becoming increasingly clear that something is amiss in the social media world.

While the average person has been roused into believing that all they need is Facebook, insiders at Facebook have been cashing in – just as the banks and financial institutions did in the early 90s when I was 10 years old just before the economy nosedived, and have done in this current recession. 

It doesn’t matter so much for the average person if there is a social media bubble or not. They will just move on to the next iteration of technology. However, it does matter for people whose livings are made in connection with these things. Investors, writers, publishers, musicians and many more – those who have bought into this and who dedicate their money, time and resources into these things, believing that doing so will provide significant return on investment, that – quite frankly – often it doesn’t for the majority in the long run. The problem is that we live in quite a reactive world driven by the fear of missing out. That fear drives people to do things just because that’s what everyone else is doing – which means that it is easy to be manipulated by those who know how to press your buttons; usually those who have a vested interest in you spending all of your resources on their site/platform.

I’m not anti-social media, this is just a note of caution. It has its place, you just need to know what that place is. It is worth exploring whether the current fad is indeed the best, most efficient, most productive, most worthwhile way to go. You may find that the answer is, actually, not really. 

The end of either/or thinking

In the days where you stayed in the same place for your whole life, where everyone was pretty much like you in terms of class, race and socio-economic background, either/or thinking had its place. It was easy then to do the “us” v “them” dance, the black v white jig, or the ‘us’ and ‘other’ jive. You could say that life was this, or life was that.. because let’s face it, unless you travelled and got to see the world, you didn’t know much more beyond your immediate environment and what the media told you about the rest.

Today, however, in this interconnected, digital, global age, it’s not so easy. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. If you want to shatter your own stereotypes and perceptions you can. With ease. Yet, many do not. Many continue to live in a closed universe, when the world is in fact, more open than it has ever been.

I’ve never been to Mongolia. Yet, I can go online and research it. I can see Mongolian people. Watch them speak on youtube, read their own thoughts on their own lives and their own environments. I have no need to make up what I think Mongolia is about. I need not believe my uncle, who has never visited Mongolia in his life and has only got his understanding of it from a select few publications, when he tells me negative things about them. No, I can find out for myself these days.

Even if you’ve never met a black person in your life, you can now. Go online. Read the multiplicity and range, the depth and breadth, of voices, and views and attitudes and thoughts coming from all over the world. The days of black man = rapper and black woman = angry panther can be analyzed for yourself. You can make up your own mind.

In 2012, what we can all learn is that we are not the same. People are individuals. Even those sharing a racial, cultural, religious or socio-economic background can be  -and are – vastly different. This is one of the more beautiful things about the internet. It can open you up to an understanding and knowledge of the world that you could never have got if the only way to reach it was to get on a plane and find out.

YET… either/or persists. Because it is convenient and it is easy. I believe that the biggest challenge for the generations coming up now is the ability to think in a nuanced, sophisticated way, in a way that is able to cope with ambiguity and differences, and sometimes even contradictions.

Let’s take myself for example. Look at the multiple nature of my identity, one which – if I’m honest – I struggled with for a long time before realizing that I just didn’t fit into any either/or box. I’m black. But I’m also British. But yet not English even though I was born and raised there. The English ask me where I’m from… where I’m really from. Well, I’m African. Nigerian, to be exact, although I have never lived in Nigeria. My parents are Nigerian. I understand Yoruba fluently, but don’t speak it very well. At times, Africa to me is a culture shock. There they ask me if I’m really Nigerian. I have, though, lived in South Africa. As an expat. An expat with an English accent, a surprise to those who would approach me speaking in Xhosa or Zulu.

I’m also female. Also intensely driven, alpha and purpose-orientated. It is my boyfriend, not I, who makes the dinner every night. I was privately educated my entire life, yet lived on a council estate in inner city London for 10 years. I have friends literally from all over the world, pretty much on every continent. I’m both “1%” and “99%”. Where do I, and others like me, fit in the either/or world?  The answer: we don’t. And as the years go by, there will be many more who also do not. They will be hybrid, mixed culture individuals who don’t fit so neatly into either a stereotype or a box.

The fast changing nature of our world has upset the apple cart. All industries are being rapidly disrupted. The real challenge is how people respond. Because in order to make sense of this new order, much thinking is required. The know-it-all days in which we could make easy assumptions and fit people into simplistic categories are gone.

These days we don’t know much. We have no idea which direction the future is going in. And we are being forced to remove our precious little labels. But – and this it the catch – despite having the tools available to us, they will only be useful if we actually use them. Those who will win in the future will be those who do. Those who will remain stuck in Industrial Age thinking will be those who don’t.

Thinking – that is, good thinking, creative thinking, novel thinking, critical thinking – requires curiosity and desire. It requires a willingness to engage. It requires a need to ask hard questions, to ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ and more. It means not just accepting what you have been told, but finding out for yourself.

I recently realized that I was becoming very bored with the internet. Why? Because it is becoming more and more closed. Google wants to tell me what to read, based on my location. Twitter wants to tell me who to connect with based on who I follow and who follows me. Linked in wants to tell me who they think I should know, based on who I have already linked with. The idea is, what I have already known should define what I want to know in the future. For me, at least, they are all wrong.

We can get drawn back into our shells – into the familiar, into what we already know and already like. These networks seems to want us to continue to live in our boxes, to some degree, and to categorize our in-groups and out-groups, our us-es and thems and our either/ors. I’d love to see a network that opens me up to newness.. new people, new ideas, new thinking that takes me beyond who I already am and what I already know. In other words, one that is educational.

We can resist this imposed limitation, for our own self-education and betterment as human beings, and choose for ourselves. We can go and search. Read widely. Search widely. Look at things we haven’t seen before. Type in a random query and see what it returns. Ask your friends to recommend some blogs or books or videos to see so that you see what you haven’t seen before. Shatter your own status quo. Go beyond either it’s this… OR it’s that…

No, today, the world is AND. In fact, it always has been… We just didn’t know it.

Social media, sharing and the erosion of personal boundaries

Early this year, I deactivated my Facebook account. I’d been on the social network before it was the phenomenon that it is now, when it was an invitation-only Ivy-League platform. That was in 2006. Back then I was returning to London from living in South Africa and decided to open an account in order to  keep in touch with the friends and colleagues that I’d made there; friends who lived all over the world. It came in handy when I moved to the US just over a year later.

Five years on and Facebook had become something that I’d come to detest. I found it increasingly intrusive, and it seemed that there was an growing, and for me uncomfortable, blurring of the boundaries between private and public. I also found that rather than bringing me closer to people, it created a lazy, effort-free pseudo-intimacy in which one feels as if they know what is going on with someone just because you are seeing their (highly edited and highly selected) photos and updates. Real friendships were in some cases starting to become Facebook friendships, and friends expected you to know their news from their Facebook wall.

In the new social era, we are being conditioned to believe that human beings have an innate need and desire to share everything about themselves. This belief has become widespread. However, I wonder where exactly this idea came from, if not only from those who are benefitting handsomely from our sharing and who have their own agenda for making us believe that it is in our DNA to tell everyone everything, including intimate details of our lives that would previously only our closest confidantes would have been privy to.

Being on Facebook and other social networks  has taught me a great deal about myself and about people. One thing I have learned is that while there may be people with whom I am happy to catch up with once every few years, I don’t feel any particular need to stay permanently attached to them. At first, it was great to reconnect with old school mates and colleagues, to hear their news and to see that they were doing well. But after a while, it became irritating to have to see some of them appearing regularly in my feed. I have never had a problem with building and maintaining good relationships pre-Facebook and I came to the conclusion that if we’d really wanted to remain in constant contact, we would have already done so.

Secondly, I was surprised by the voyeuristic nature of the platform. Often, I felt as though I was getting TMI, seeing photos and updates that I didn’t really want to see or hear. It continues to amaze me that people will boast very personal photographs on Facebook for the world to see. Likewise, I felt that some people had an unhealthy interest in my photos and updates. I am interested in human nature, yes. What I am not so interested in the minutiae of other people’s lives. Nor, frankly, do I believe anyone else should be all that interested in mine. I remember a phrase that was popular in primary school: MYOB, or Mind Your Own Business. I still think that holds.

Talking of photos, I also realized that I did not like having a permanent past stored online. I wanted to be able to remove things at will, just as in my ordinary life I will periodically get rid of, or pack away, unnecessary items, consigning them either to the wastebin or to memory, to be retrieved at some later time when I felt like reminiscing in the latter case. While I was able to take down albums of my own, which I did, I was not able to take down the hundreds of photos taken over the years by other people which I had been tagged in.

To deal with this, I set up filters… But even that became a headache as I had to figure out what I wanted different people to see and then manage ensuring that different people were on the right lists so that they would only see what I wanted them to see. At first, Facebook had been for close friends. Then family started joining. Then people I didn’t know who’d read my work or seen me on TV, or heard me on the radio started adding me. Then people in my professional network started friending me too. In the real world, each of these different groups would be encountered in different spaces; spaces appropriate to my relationship and interaction with them. On Facebook where everyone is a “friend”, the sense of an appropriate space relative to the type of relationship one has with different individuals is gone.

By the end I was attempting to work out who was what type of “friend” and what type of relationship I had with that “friend”. Did I want X former colleague to see shots of me in my bikini on holiday?

Then I started de-friending people. It wasn’t because I didn’t like them, just that I realized that by my definition of ‘friend’, we really weren’t friends at all. Acquaintances, passers-by, perhaps… but not friends. Therefore, they should not have access to my inner world and personal information in the way that a real friend would. But in Facebook world, what is a ‘friend’ anyway?

Another thing that was becoming more apparent was the lack of filter that people have online. I have been aware through my professional writing that when people make comments online, they often say things that they would not in person. In the early days of Facebook, I’d set up an anonymous honesty box which was supposed to be a fun thing whereby I’d ask a silly question such as “would you kiss me?” and then get answers posted anonymously. It was all harmless in the beginning, but a few years later, I started receiving nasty and abusive anonymous messages. This meant that people who were apparently “friends” thought that it was appropriate to message me anonymously and insult me, and my work in particular, on Facebook. Since I didn’t know who these people were, that further added to a sense of being intruded on and as well as making me feel suspicious.

The various liking and comment features on Facebook encourage this idea that we have the right to, and should, add our opinions to everybody’s personal affairs. Yet, is it healthy for people to comment on your life in this way? On Facebook, we start to to measure our own personal lives in terms of other people’s opinions. Do you “like” my photo? Do you like my comment? Do you like my update? The real question is does it really matter what anybody else thinks? I think there’s a difference between seeking comments and feedback on my work, which is designed to provoke conversation and discussion and more opinion, and getting comments on my personal information.

I started using Facebook more as a business tool, posting links to my work and so on. Then some friends started complaining that I was talking too much about business and that they felt I was being too self-promotional!!

In the end, I concluded that what does and has always worked for me are close intimate, genuine relationships with a few people. True friendships. And those could be conducted in a much simpler fashion, using email and the telephone, and yes even writing letters. It’s certainly less of a headache. Professional relationships also need not exist on Facebook and not being on the network has not made an iota of difference for me professionally.

I’m 31 years old and was using the internet long before share, share, share became its mantra. However there are many young people who are being raised to believe that what’s private should is public. Determining how and in which way one shares oneself and one’s personal information should, in my view, require a certain amount of emotional and social intelligence as one works out  how best to communicate and what one wants to be received and how one wants to be understood and perceived in the world. Self-regulation is a core component of emotional development and maturity. I believe wholeheartedly in freedom, yet I also believe that freedom comes with responsibility. Maybe the mantra should be “share, but share responsibly”.

I use Twitter more now which I prefer, although I have my own reservations about that too (but for very different reasons which I will write about another time although I also continue to be shocked at what some people, especially younger ones, feel is appropriate to post on Twitter). For those close to me, I use good old email and the telephone. I’ve grown closer to people this way since those tools require genuine conversation and more substantive interaction.

In the bare-all culture of this generation, I like having boundaries. I do not think that everyone needs to know everything, nor that I need to share that much. Personally, I’m not driven to bare all. I cannot see the necessity, nor the efficacy, in it. The ones really benefitting are  the collectors of our data.

I’m not a Luddite – I believe that the internet is one of the greatest inventions to date; it has fundamentally and undeniably changed the world. My interest is in not just using the tools that are available, but doing so in ways that are truly beneficial.

It has been about 6 months now since I deactivated my Facebook account and it is actually one of the best things that I have done this year.

Social Media & Magpie culture

The Magpie bird is known for its love of bright, shiny objects. Magpies instinctively flock and flutter, as fast as they can, towards shiny objects. They have an insatiable need to grab hold of and possess (they often steal) that gleaming thing. (They are also, by the way, considered to be bad omens.)

As I watch the proliferation of social media, and the widespread adoption of it by consumers and businesses, it strikes me that human beings are acting in similar magpie fashion. Look, it’s social media! It’s shiny! It’s new! Ooh Facebook! Ooh Linked In! Ooh Twitter! Ooh Google+ ! Ooh Pinterest! Ooh next-hot-social-media platform! Hordes of people run to the next startup, desperate to settle into that next place where they can join their friends, family and colleagues in sharing, liking, plussing, pinning, tweeting and doing whatever else people do online these days.

In all honesty – and I say this as someone who comes from a tech-obsessed family, who started using the internet in 1995 when I only had one other friend with an email address, and was building websites and blogs (not with WordPress may I add) wayyy before they were even fashionable – I am beginning to find the whole thing a little bit perturbing.

It’s not just the unquestioning mass movement. It’s also the fear that seems to come with it: this notion that if you’re not a social media hotshot,  you’re going to get left behind in life. The idea seems to have been implanted in us that we just have to use social media. We have to. We need it. Life cannot be lived properly without it facebooking or tweeting or pinteresting.

Apparently it’s not possible to enjoy a social function anymore without “checking in” and telling the whole world where you are. Every photo you take must be done with a social media upload in mind. Businesses are being led to believe that they cannot thrive without adopting these tools. And hence we flock from pillar to post, jumping on the next moving social media train.

Of course, for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, these types of beliefs are fantastic. If people believe they can’t live without you, you are set. Tell everyone they need what you are offering, get them hooked on your drug and make it hard for them to quit. Just check out the recent Facebook IPO. Even more telling is its subsequent fall out.

My intention is not to sound like a Luddite. I love watching human beings progress, and technology has helped, and is helping us do that. But I don’t believe in adopting things for adoption’s sake.

When the early social media platforms – MySpace, even Facebook – were coming up, they were new and we had not seen them before, so of course there was a natural curiosity and interest and a desire to see how these things worked and whether or not they could improve our lives. But we have got past that stage, and now it seems as though we have entered into a phase of mass consumption of any and everything social media related.

Rarely are we stopping to ask whether we do we really do need these things? What they are for and what purpose do they serve in our lives? Some say that Facebook helps you to communicate better with friends. I personally have not found that Facebook has brought me closer to or helped me to communicate better with my friends, and in fact, I deactivated my account earlier this year because I actually want to have more meaningful, deeper and more substantive engagement with people in my life.

After all, there is only so much one is going to put on a Facebook wall post or in a Tweet. I found that photos, posts, and my ‘sharing’ was becoming more and more selective and even censored as I strove to take into account all of the different people who might be looking at my personal information: not just friends but family, colleagues and those who knew me from having read my work or seen me on TV. I wasn’t being fully myself, I was becoming a marketed version of myself…to my friends? Surely that is not what real friendship is about?

Last year I also conducted a business experiment. I’d self-published a book and I used social media to see how well each platform would far as a promotional tool, and for driving sales. Facebook yielded low returns. Surprisingly low actually. Twitter fared better. But I found that the most rewarding form of communication was simple email. The personal touch. General Motors which has pulled their $10m ad spend from Facebook has also seems to have realized that advertising on Facebook isn’t producing the kinds of returns that it had hoped for. I was reading a social media marketing guide just yesterday and was shocked by the frenetic, almost schizophrenic, way in which some companies are encouraging businesses to spread themselves thinly across whatever platform they can in order to reach consumers. This to me is not good business strategy.

As a disclaimer, I’ve never been a huge fan of crowds or large group activity – the collective mind and group think that takes over individual thought when people are together in numbers has always bothered me – and I literally get nervous when I see large numbers of people moving, often unthinkingly, towards something, anything really. It is usually my cue to get out, or at the very least to stop, look, observe and ask myself some questions.

I think the the internet has fundamentally changed the world, in many ways, good and not so good. I use Twitter regularly and it provides direct access to people who I may not have been able to access directly before. But I know that my life doesn’t depend on it.

All that glitters is not gold; that just because something is new and sparkly and promises to change my life/help me change the world/connect me with the rest of the world and so on, this does not necessarily make it beneficial to my life.

As we get deeper into the internet age, it is worth asking some questions… Do we really need to be like human magpies, or are there some other, deeper, more human, ways in which we can get our needs met?