07 March 2011

fear of social

Last week I had an interesting opportunity, and it has brought something to my attention that I think is probably worth sharing.

I was invited to speak at an event about how to take advantage of Social Media - and how to address the risks of Social Media. I was on a panel with a whole stack of other folks, representing a wide range of perspectives on the topic.

Within the first 15 minutes I realized that the real topic here was Fear of Social Media. And I rapidly realized that the audience was, in fact, quite terrified. Seriously. Terrified.

I - of course - handled this somewhat poorly.

I told the audience (and the other panelists) that they need to chill the fuck out and not be so scared.
I told the audience that credit companies have been providing all the data that they fear social networks will share - and having been doing so for decades.
I told the audience that in one more generation no-one will care about things like "your drunken college photos being part of your permanent record."

Basically, I told the audience that they were stupid for being afraid.

What I should have done was try and better understand why they are so afraid.

So consider this a belated attempt to do just that.

Why are people so scared?

There are a million reasons for fear. There are nearly that many reasons for fear of social networks. But let's do two things for the purpose of this post.

1 - Let's focus purely on the meta issues (the drivers) that are shared across the high point of the bell curve,
2 - Let's ignore the people and companies who have a vested interest in propagating this fear out of hope of their own gain or pursuit of their own agendas. *

Given those constraints, I think that there are two primary forces behind the fear.

First - increased transparency.
Second - increased speed.

In our world (silicon valley tech), we take as a given that increased transparency is a good thing. The reality is that there are a lot of things that people really don't want to know about. In fact, there are a lot of things that people work hard to not know about. People prefer to live in ignorance about a large range of important topics as it makes their lives more tolerable. This explains everything from consumption of sausage to republican elected officials with homosexual sidelines to teenage daughters and sex to what's happening with Bradley Manning.

If Wikileaks taught us anything, it's that a large percentage of the population would simply prefer to not know. And that when they are forced to know - they become angry and afraid.

Social Media in general, Social Networks in particular, and the modern web as a philosophy are all about a very high degree of transparency. All of a sudden the data sharing is not only explicit - it is out in the open. Information about other people that has long been accessible but hidden and not talked about in a semi-genteel way is now shared right in the open.

People can no longer pretend that their personal information is private. People can no longer pretend that privacy, in fact, is not a promise broken daily by every government and nearly all corporations.

And this makes them scared - and angry.

I believe that the transparency issue alone would create fear in a smaller subset of the general populace if it were the only major meta issue out there.

But there is another big driver - perhaps the biggest in this context.

Everything is coming faster. Everything is speeding up. All the time.

Once upon a time, you'd get a piece of information (perhaps from a newspaper or a letter for example) and you'd have a week or even more to make a decision about what to do about this information.

As time has gone by, that gap between when you receive information and when you must act has decreased. TV turned weeks into days. The web turned days into hours. And now the so-called "real time internet" has turned hours into minutes.

This change has occurred within a single lifetime.

I cannot express how important that last statement is. People have gone from weekly papers to daily papers to daily TV news to 24 hour cable channels to hourly web updates to real time streams.... in their lives.

This is a scale change that is very challenging for the human being to adapt to.

And I think everyone is aware that it's only accelerating. And the volume is only increasing.

And that scares the crap out of people.

Now combine the two.
Transparency creates not only fear, but context ("This is important stuff and creates important risk and must be dealt with carefully").
Speed creates urgency and pressure.

Combine the two and you have both oxygen and flame.

And I wish I could sum up here with "and this is how to fix it." Or with "and this is why it's an opportunity."
But instead all I can say is, "this too shall pass."

In the meantime, just chill the fuck out, okay?

* Of course... ignoring those who are seeding and encouraging this fear is kind of foolish as those who do so for their own agendas are probably responsible for 75% of the fear out there. My belief, however, is that even with the efforts of these folks fear would not be so prevalent without the underlying (true) meta issues.