Anti-Social Media: What digital intimacy means for consumers and brands

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The chart above does a handy job of breaking down the various choices available to us for communication.

On the one hand, its easy to interpret this variety of choice as freedom, and equally easy to imagine that such freedom enriches our lives. On the other hand, the choices above (most of which did not exist ten years ago) also have us splintering our self image across many communication platforms.

This has subtle but important consequences for consumers. No doubt it’s great to be able to contact people on the other side of the world in real-time. Yet as a result, many people (including myself) are making less of an effort to have face to face contact with friends or family that live nearby. This dynamic is self-perpetuating as it seems the more ‘real-time’ tools we have at our disposal the less time we have to physically meet. Perhaps that’s why ‘Talking’ is #10 above and not #1.

At the same time that face to face time is being marginalized, the relative anonymity and exposure available through social media is encouraging uncharacteristic exhibitionism. As Brian Solis noted last week, the “healthy and important tussle between Twitter and Facebook also carries significant impacts on human behavior as existing and new users are subconsciously conditioned, enticed, and emotionally and intellectually rewarded for digital extroversion.”

So is less face time and more online exhibitionism all that dangerous? Perhaps not to the current adult generation since we still know what life was like before social media. It’s a reference point that allows us to maintain some semblance of balance. Our children’s generation, however, will grow up knowing little else and I wonder at what cost? Already young adults are shooing their parents off facebook and teenagers are obstinately refusing to tweet. Social media is a known quantity in their lives and its rise has only just begun.

If there is any criteria by which to judge the value of social media in our lives, it might have to be as broad as “does it better our daily lives?” Obviously early adopters of such new technology will answer “yes”. But the father in me wonders whether the old school community (you know, that one built out of neighborhoods, a corner store and the local school) offer experiential advantages over an online network. In the same way, is a relationship, born, nurtured and largely maintained online as substantive as one in which time is spent together? Obviously its not a question of ‘either/or’. But while this generation may think the answer is obvious and the question redundant, but the next, tech-reared, generation may soon think very differently.

As a marketer, the excesses of digital intimacy are equally apparent. With the advent of social media, many brands have capitulated any responsibility with regard to earning customer trust or loyalty. Instead they simply aim to hijack and capitalize on our personal relationships. Obviously marketing has always relied on word of mouth exposure and social networks have dimensionalized this dynamic in a way that’s irresistable to marketers. So the user is caught in the middle between wanting to communicate more freely while not being exploited at the same time.

The fact remains that the relative anonymity of social media cuts both ways. Just as we readily export curated versions of ourselves across social media, brands increasingly view us as data points to be exploited rather than as human beings. Social media enables brands to transform our ever-expanding network of personal relationships into a virtually limitless marketplace in which our personal profiles are recast as product placement opportunities going to market.

As less and less of our lives escape consumerism, and more and more of our relationships migrate online, the chart above will perhaps expand to twenty or one hundred levels. Will such digital intimacy truly enrich our lives, or is it simply the latest guise through which brands use consumers to enrich themselves? It’s hard to tell where that balance will net out and ultimately each person must choose for themselves whether being a social network user means they must also be willing to be cast as a consumer.

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