by Rob Stam

As I was discussing personal marketing strategies with my team at Navigate to promote speaking and coaching services, Social Media (of course), had to be a part of the plan. I cringed. As a 40+ year-old, I find myself on the fence as to whether I love or hate social media. I think I hate it, but without it I can’t get your attention to buy my book or hire me to speak at your next event.

Those younger than me can hardly imagine life without social media. Those older than me either find it to be a life-sucking force that’s destroying humanity, or an exciting novelty that allows them to keep track of their kids and grandkids.

I read about this topic a lot. And the ultimate question is: is social media a good thing?

This is not the first time we’ve been here as a society. From newspapers landing on every doorstep in the mid 1800s to the glowing boxes in living rooms in the 1950s, the world has rapidly been getting smaller for several generations, as our communication platforms have advanced.

So what do those past experiences of newspapers, radio, television, etc. have in common with Social Media? What do they tell us about its future, and more importantly, its ultimate impact on future generations?

I’ve chosen four categories by which to consider this discussion:

1. We Must First Understand the Disruptive Nature of Media.
All advancements in communication have created a disruption in our society. Imagine a day when you really didn’t know (or even know you could know) about events happening in another part of the world. Not to suggest that we should draw back to a neolithic era and put our heads in the sand, but have you ever considered what your life would be like if you didn’t know North Korea existed, let alone that they had nuclear weapons?

This national and global information affects how you live. It fuels your fears, your hopes, how you raise your children, and how you make career decisions. Who would have imagined Chinese Mandarin Immersion Education existing in small towns across America just one generation ago?

Ultimately though, these things only affect us personally if we engage. Sure, if North Korea sends a missile our way, it will affect us all. But does reading about it in the newspaper, watching about it on TV, or reading partisan perspectives about it online every day make your life better? What exactly do you plan to do about it? Protest? Talk about it at work? Build a bomb shelter in your backyard?

But the disruption that concerns me the most is not what happens on the other side of the world, it’s how that disruption affects what we do each day. While mountain biking one day I found myself thinking about the perfect Instagram pic to snap and post. And I was annoyed. By being engaged with this relatively new communication platform, my very thought process and enjoyment of a simple bike ride is diminished. 10 years ago I wouldn’t have imagined riding a bike and then thinking about which reporter to call to cover the story.

Which leads nicely into my next point about our advancements in communication….

2. Social Media Fuels Narcissism.
Narcissism is a clinical personality disorder. I think if we’re being honest we all have a little narcissism. Social Media brings it out in us, and this is a very dangerous thing. We stage the perfect photos and we script the perfect posts to get attention. Whether the topic is good or bad, we want to be noticed for something.

When you think about the most extreme examples of narcissism, characters like Nero and Hitler, we see the worst-case scenario. On a smaller (I hope) scale, look at our current president who is obviously obsessed with attention. On an even smaller scale, have you ever worked for a narcissist? The person who has to intervene or change something, not because it makes that thing better, but because it has to be done their way?

Hollywood is at the heart of how a media platform has always put narcissism on display: there are credits at the beginning and end of every movie and multiple televised award shows to put their greatness in full view. Meanwhile, those members of our society who are actually worthy of award shows receive little recognition.

The scariest thing about social media is now we ALL have a platform to be on display. Every day we conduct our mini awards shows by sharing our perfect family photos, our kids’ accolades, and our opinions (which you’d be crazy not to agree with). We are putting narcissism on a scale that makes Nero look like an introvert.

So what happens next? Capitalism, of course.

3. All Communication Platforms Become Commercialized.
I remember when Twitter launched. My first reaction was, “How long will it take before they figure out how this is getting paid for?” and, “No one would actually pay to use this, would they?”

It didn’t take long.

All communication platforms are dependent on ad dollars. They always have been and always will be. Shoot, even cable TV—which we pay to use—still needs ad revenue to support it. What we fail to understand as a society is that what we see on our communication platforms is based primarily on where the money comes from.

Money is always an ulterior motive in the communication industry. The American newspapers of the American Revolution printed stories of triumph while George Washington’s Continental Army was getting obliterated by the British, being reduced from 20,000 to 3,000 soldiers practically overnight. The people funding the papers had an agenda: rally the colonists around our cause. Jefferson was even quoted as saying, “Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.”

The primary goal of our news sources is not to be informative, but to be entertaining, because that’s why people tune in. Advertisers on every medium choose their budget allocation based on audience size, not quality of content. This is called Cost Per Thousand, and every ad agency uses it as a primary indicator of where to invest their clients’ money within their target demographics. The content of the media outlet is secondary, if considered at all. Which segues nicely into my last point:

4. Social media, and all advertising platforms, are increasingly becoming content poor.
That seems like a contradiction. There is more content available than ever before. But is it quality content? When newspapers were new, people invested time to read them. Therefore, a writer could invest time to write… to craft something that required in-depth thought, research, and perspective. Even if it was driven by an agenda, it was still written by one of a few members of society who could actually write something worthy of reading.

Even on the advertisement front, there was a day when one could sell with information, not just manipulation. One of my favorite advertisements still sits in my office: “Steinway, the instrument of the immortals” from Good Housekeeping in 1928. It contains beautiful artwork and several paragraphs of narrative. By today’s standards it’s a short article, but back in 1928 it was an ad. Today in advertising we teach seven words or less. We teach how to capture emotion, not provide education.

As more and more content becomes readily available, society doesn’t invest time in discovering what is great. We don’t appreciate art like we used to, we appreciate “pics.” We don’t appreciate authors, we appreciate bloggers. While the opportunity to share opinions and have free speech is a good thing, it doesn’t mean what’s being shared is actually good.

So whether you hate or love social media, remember that it is just an evolution of the communication we’ve been participating in for generations. I would love to see social media become the end of a long chain of media evolution, because as our media technology has evolved, I believe our intelligence has devolved. With the rapid development of Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence technologies, I fear the worst is ahead of us. We may literally not need to think or leave our homes soon.

So for now, let’s use social media for what it’s good for, but not let it define us.

Instead of viewing the world through screens, I hope you will open the screen door and go outside;

That you will enjoy bike rides without cameras;

That you will learn to love reading volumes written by scholars instead of articles by people like me;

That you will appreciate true art over snapped pics;

That this will be the generation to create a less shallow, narcissism-fueled culture.

Now please like and share this article on all your social media pages.