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Social networks destroy society: what should be done?

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Social networks are being accused by their own creators to destroy society and to tear human beings apart (read the interview of Chamath Palihapitya who is a former Facebook VP).
At the same time movements like Time Well Spent are emerging to denounce the addictive nature of social networks, artificial intelligence and personalization alike (see my other article on this topic).

Atomized behaviours, lack of cohesiveness are some of the symptoms of our digital society. Several question pop up to my mind.

  • Hasn’t society always been fragmented and what has changed with social networks ?
  • What is wrong with personalized interactions ? Aren’t tailored and personalized interactions what all humans are looking for ?

Let’s examine those two questions separately.

The fragmentation of society and the impact of social media

In his recent book “Media Resistance” (in open access here), T. Syvertsen points to 6 recurrent concerns on media that shape resistance : morality, culture, enlightment, democracy, community and health. She writes :

“Media and communication technology is often depicted as bringing people together, but to those who resist, media brings isolation […]. Resistance is linked with notions of mass society and the concern that industrialization, urbanization and mass media have undermined the communal basis of society” (emphasis added).

In other words, it is a recurrent concern that media (and not only social media) undermines the notion of community and breaks the links between member of the society. This concern seems not to be specific to social media alone.

What is wrong with personalization ?

Technology has enabled better and automated personalization, at a larger scale. Everyone could agree that this benefits the consumer because her needs can better be served. Technology and social media have also enabled us to maintain one-to-one relationships with more people than ever. Although those relationships are sometimes superficial, one has to recognize nevertheless that social media and technology have dramatically increased our capacity to reach and exchange with other people. Homo Sapiens has turned into Homo Communicatus.
At the same time however personalization is seen as an evil because it atomizes consumption, recognizes and values the individuality in each of us. Technology (Big Data, algorithm) leverages individuality at the detriment of collectivity.
One question needs to be asked though: Why is it that we suddenly value collectivity ?

My take

Scholar works like the one by Syvertsen show that all forms of media have been associated to a negative effect on the feeling of collectivism. Media has been accused to lead to tear society apart. The technology behind today’s media (be it social medias or digital forms of regular medias) is logically accused of the same.
Yet, at the same time Human Beings value the recognition of their individuality, a feeling that can only increase with the fall of totalitarian regimes imposing collectivism. I believe that an individual can only realize him/herself if he/she is aware of his/her individuality. Technology and social media are thus enablers; not hurdles. Communication and exchanges have been at the basis of human evolution and one must admit that never before have we been able to communicate at such a massive scale with as many people.
If technology is an enabler, it is a tool like any other. It’s not an end in itself; just a mean. It has to be harnessed and used for the Greater Good. You can’t avoid people using things for mean aims. But this world has kept progressing for thousands of years because the balance between Good and evil has been slightly positive. I believe that Big Data and algorithms haven’t reached that balance yet. It is only with more control, more education, more transparency that wrong behaviours will be avoided. Fortunately people around the globe start realizing that algorithmic technology put in the wrong hands can harm. Similar to the media resistance, algorithmic resistance is also increasing and will become a increasing trend in the coming years.

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Pierre-Nicolas est Docteur en Marketing et dirige l'agence d'études de marché IntoTheMinds. Ses domaines de prédilection sont le BigData l'e-commerce, le commerce de proximité, l'HoReCa et la logistique. Il est également chercheur en marketing à l'Université Libre de Bruxelles et sert de coach et formateur à plusieurs organisations et institutions publiques. Il peut être contacté par email, Linkedin ou par téléphone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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