Is an Online Presence Mandatory? Part 1: Social Consequences

Since writing about varying opinions on social media and ownership of online content, I’ve been musing about ‘online presence’ as a concept in general. Last night I mentioned to a friend that in 10 years (or less), it’s very likely that some of the basic web development skills we teach at The Iron Yard to help people launch careers in software development will be either an expectation for most knowledge workers’ jobs, automated in some way, or, more likely, a combination of both.

This topic is a complex one without singular answers, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts that have been rolling around in my mind as of late. You can find links to all of the posts in the series on this page. Here’s Part 1:

Social consequences

I’ve written before that “the interesting characteristic of many of our [online] tools…is that there are very real social (and sometimes business) consequences for people who don’t engage in them1.”

People can waste time in a million ways, but social media communities have some unique characteristics. First of all, the currency for many social platforms is attention, so they employ very smart people to figure out how to capture and sustain involvement (this is most often tied to advertising). As with any time-wasting mechanism, healthy usage requires discipline on the part of the user.

The complexity of the situation extends beyond personal discipline, though. For many people, social media platforms are the path of least resistance for maintaining important social connections, whether that be friends, family or other types of communities, which can be a very powerful experience. In my own family, I’ve observed the joy that Facebook brings to grandmothers who see regular updates about grandchildren who live far away. For some people around the world, social media platforms are a way to gather voices speaking out against oppression and corruption. Beyond social connections, an increasing number of people stay up to date with the news and current events via social media.

Herein lies the difficulty: tools that are designed to grab more and more of our attention require the discipline of setting boundaries, yet in the act of limiting themselves, users feel they are foregoing important relationships and information—because in many cases, they are.

In a post I saved almost a year ago, Nicholas Carr compares this experience to a story called “William Wilson” by Edgar Allen Poe2.

Returning to the Smashing Facebook meme — a meme of my own imagining, I acknowledge — it struck me that Edgar Alan Poe might shed light on the matter. Poe understood the psychology of social media when Mark Zuckerberg’s great-great-great-grandfather was still in short pants.

Just yesterday, an acquaintance of mine let it be known that he was, as he put it, “off the Book.” Translation: he had cancelled his Facebook account. This was not, I immediately recalled, the first time he had made such an announcement. He had gone off the Book, and then back on the Book, at least a couple of times previously. That’s not unusual these days. I’ve met a lot of people who, exhausted with the work of maintaining appearances on Facebook, try to break the habit, only to find, a few days or a few weeks later, that they’ve reactivated the account.

I know you see the moral of the tale, dear reader, but indulge me while, like Aesop, I belabor it: One terminates one’s Facebook account only to discover that one has terminated one’s self.

That might be a hyperbolic example, but I do think the author touches on the reality that social media has become a very integral part of many people’s lives.

Closing thoughts

I’ve written several times recently about some people’s concerns about how private corporations use their data—many of which are legitimate arguments. Practically, for someone with those concerns, though, the choice not to join social media platforms carries more complexity—a variety of potential social consequences—that often mean the decision isn’t a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

As I said in the introduction, this topic is a complex one without singular answers. The place to start, though, is careful consideration of the digital tools we use, how they affect our lives and, ultimately, how their consequences—good and bad—line up with our value systems.

1. I first mentioned the social consequences of not engaging in social media in a post called “Productivity Requires Removing Distractions.” You can read the full article here.2. You can read “The William Wilson Effect,” an article by Nicolas Carr, on his website.

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