Pique'n'yer Interest 

Why can’t social media just be?

Earlier this year the Onion published a story that penetrated deeper into the heart of our culture than any book, movie or song I've heard in years.

Titled "New social networking site changing the way oh, Christ, forget it," it went something like this: the story talked about Foursquare, a tool of self-surveillance that allows you to "check-in" and... oh, jeez, couldn't this have been handed off to an intern or freelancer? You can use Twitter to notify friends of your location and... oh my gosh, just shoot me now!

That's about the gyst of the article - an exasperated reporter is tearing his hair out at the task of writing on a wholly uncontroversial topic and is blown away that there exists an expert on it. He is frustrated further by the fact that there exists any media interest in the subject.

I empathize with that reporter and I constantly ask myself why social media has become such a compelling topic of discussion - in the media, in cafes, at conferences, film festivals and elsewhere.

A disclaimer first: I use social media as much as anyone. I have Facebook, Twitter, a blog and MySpace, though I haven't touched the latter in a few years. Friends know I love engaging in debates on Facebook and Twitter so long as they stop short of abusive language. In the past I've maintained a blog that's garnered over 3,000 hits a month and my Twifficiency is rated at 32 per cent.

I'm quite aware of the connecting capabilities of such tools and I like that I'm able to engage with writers and personalities whom I'd otherwise have to buy a plane ticket to meet. But is it REALLY worth talking about? I'm not so certain.

An example, first: in February 2010, CBC's Power and Politics hosted an interview with Juliette Powell, a former MuchMusic VJ who's since become a "media entrepreneur," consulting with businesses about how to push a product or a message through social media.

The segment focused on how tools like Facebook and Twitter have provoked responses throughout the world to the earthquake in Haiti, producing reactions even from that country's government.

Power and Politics is normally a good, inquisitive show that works hard to get to the heart of issues but it was wasting its time with this segment. Host Evan Solomon bypassed discussion of important issues like forgiving third world debt in favour of a dialogue with Powell that allowed her to wax poetic about the "human connection" and "online organizing."

For a viewer accustomed to incisive debate, it was painful to watch the host dance around more important issues like getting food and books to Haitians in favour of letting an entrepreneur use his platform to promote her brand - a boring, inaccessible one for people who use social media and don't feel the need to dwell on it.

If there is a discussion to be had about social media, it's about whether our passion for these tools is leading us towards another dot-com bust.

Back in the mid-90s, the Internet was an industry all its own. Sites like Go.com, Pseudo.com and Ask Jeeves were seen as cash cows. Internet entrepreneurs encouraged kids to quit school, forgo college and invest in companies whose market viability rested on the assumption that if something were successful in the U.S., it could be a hit elsewhere in the world.

This was patently wrong. The dot-com bubble burst in 2001 after a multitude of e-companies exhausted their venture capital and didn't turn a profit.

I'm not saying that we're re-living the same phenomenon today. Sites like Twitter and Facebook have produced few successful pretenders, but the profit-making capabilities of these social engines will no doubt soon put dollar signs in the eyes of potential competitors.

I can't quantify when the social media craze will start to slide off into the abyss of bankrupt ventures. But the passion that people have for social media sites suggests to me that competitors will one day start proliferating to bring Facebook and Twitter down from their pedestals, producing unsustainable businesses that drag us down into another bust.

That's a social media issue worth talking about - how long this craze can last. We know about the human connection and we know enough about its power to hold people accountable, enough to let that discussion lie.

Let's discuss how long social media can survive in its current iteration. Or else we can just let it be.



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