Hanneke du Toit

“Enough about me… what do you think about me?”

Second shadow: your personal information on display wherever you go. From the survey conduced by Matthias Böhmer.

Second shadow: your personal information on display wherever you go. (Image from a survey conducted by Matthias Böhmer.)

People say we are self-involved (and who are we to disagree?)

Critics of social media have been lamenting about its narcissistic and self-referential nature. Blogging and micro-blogging is considered to be nothing more than a time consuming, data intensive exercise in self-broadcasting. The medium can be employed for a variety of different purposes (in the way Twitter was recently used by protesters in the Iranian elections), but for the majority of users it is still a channel to tell the world that you are stuck in traffic / watching re-runs of Prison Break / at some franchised coffee bar having the most fabulous latte known to man. Stephen Fry tweeted tonight:

“I have been most remiss, tweetwise. Apologies. Thissing and thatting, whiching and whatting – a walk here, a lunch there and now a dinner.”

Everyone’s at it.

He started it.

None of us can claim to have invented self-absorption, but then there’s never accounting for the French. The first open advocate for all things self-focussed was Michel de Montaigne, born in 1533. He is the father of the essay (producing the first volume of Essais meaning “Attempts”) and thus also of the modern blog.

In FT on the week end, Harry Eyres notes that de Montaigne was

‘… the begetter of the contemporary curse of self-absorption … [he] reversed the whole direction of study, research, investigation; he turned the lens from the observed to the observer. “For many years now the target of my thoughts has been myself alone; I examine nothing, I study nothing, but me…” You could blame Montaigne for the culture of narcissism… the patron saint of self-help books: “You should not blame me for publishing; what helps me can perhaps help someone else.”’

Sounds like a blog to me.

Just look at it grow!

So we like broadcasting ourselves. On the one hand we feel uneasy about disclosing personal information, but at the same time we really want to be in touch, we really want to share. There has been exponential growth in social media in the past year. South Africa ranks number 10 in the world for new users on Twitter. Newcomers to Facebook in the past few months are 55 years old on average, indicating that older generations are joining the conversation.

Social media offers more than just a digital soap box. It has become a form of self-expression and crafting of identity. We become what we associate with. What we follow or join, and who we befriend all says something about us. Social media increasingly connects our online persona’s better, faster and more appropriately with things we relate to – from people and news to products and brands. An interesting look at the users of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn can be found here and here.

And OH! the marketers just love it.

The very fact that we tend to be so narcissistic in our travels across the net is heaven for marketers. The information we so meticulously upload is more or less freely available (you consent with one quick click), direct and profiles mostly real (as opposed to pseudo, or anonymous). Tom Anderson from Anderson Analytics is excited about what he calls 3-D market reasearch. He does this with information he gleans from Facebook, through a basic application called Compared to Me. The game walks you through 15 steps of comparing yourself to a randomly chosen person from your group of friends (Who is probably stronger? Who is probably more likely to own an SUV?). The game assigns a personality profile to you based on this (ranging from Rock Star to Couch Potato), although the individual comparisons are not revealed. Should your friends play the game, their subjective comparisons will also be available to the researcher. Compared to Me provides data on how you see yourself and how you are viewed by your peers, creating a context for the information –  a”cubed” or “3-D” sampling plan as Anderson calls it. Check out the Facebook application here.

Another Facebook application that will yield interesting data in terms of consumer behaviour, is Super Fan – the “super charged” alternative to current fan pages. The basic concept:

“… a platform for fans to express all levels of fan status — from avid to anti — on music, celebrities, television shows, sports, brands, places. It combines the community elements of social networks and adds a layer of gaming and competitive play to keep members engaged with their onsite faves.”

Thought I recognised you from somewhere. (From the survey by Matthias Böhmer)

Thought I recognised you from somewhere. (From the survey by Matthias Böhmer)

One step beyond: ubiquitous social media.

Now consider this: Imagine your social media persona appearing around you, courtesy of few advances in display technology. Think of it as a digital aura that carries your, name, education, interests, affiliations and connections. It is visible to everybody wherever you go, and alerts you when passing people carrying compatible and relevant information. This comes from a study being done by Matthias Böhmer, and considers what social networks might look like in the future. You can find Bömer’s interesting, and rather disturbing questionnaire here, and pitch in your own thoughts. This hypothetical (but not terribly far-fetched) scenario will have an immense effect on the way we connect with each other on a face-to-face basis.

The principal problem is that we often portray slightly idealised versions of self in social media. “You Looked Better on MySpace”: Deception and authenticity on Web 2.0 explains the phenomenon well (link via LB, thanks). How would you feel walking around with your status update flashing above your head? Or with your profile picture in tandem with your real face, with your interests, connections and education boldly on display?  The thought is rather intimidating. Exactly how confidently narcissistic are we, and soap boxes aside, how visible can we bear to be? Might people become more private, in social media terms, as a result? We are demanding transparency from our governments, our banks, colleagues, friends and lovers. Is it fair to be hesitant about being reciprocally transparent? Author and developer Kathy Sierra Twittered last night:

“Most humans love mystery. Seduction is often fueled by what we do NOT know/see (but want to). Some forms of opacity should NOT be lost.”

Then again, perhaps it is simply getting used to a whole new level of connectedness. People were still suspicious of mobile phones as recently as 12 years ago. As for personal information on public display?  I might be more inclined to consider the benefits the next time a stranger starts chatting to me in a bar.

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Filed under: Social Media, , , ,

One Response

  1. matthias says:

    Thank you for linking my survey here! Currently, I am conducting a new one. I am interested into ambient sound and publishing it via the Internet. Please have a look here at http://tiny.cc/KxgSl and fill out the questionnaire.

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