The Illusion of Social Networks

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I wrote this piece back in May 2011 on TechCrunch and the response was crazy. Some radio broadcasters from Australia actually called me to talk about the piece on their show.

The world is full of illusions. Magicians use a cascade of mirrors, smoke, and misdirection to trick their audiences into believing the unbelievable. In the process, they mystify them, capturing their attention. Whether it’s David Copperfield cutting his lovely assistants in half with a saw, or David Blaine wowing street audiences by levitating himself, these types of artists rely on illusions to thrill, captivate, and influence in their followers.

None of these magicians, however, hold a candle to the illusions provided by the characters who dance on television channels. For decades, the masses have been planted in front of the tube, waiting for packaged content to tickle their eyeballs and smooth the edges of modern life. Whether it’s the stars of a soap opera, anchors on political news networks, or preachers channeling the wishes of higher powers, TV provides the possibility of distribution according to audience segments in return for huge sums of advertising revenues.

Even criminals and mass murders try to create these illusions. In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, one of the most fascinating kernels of information to emerge from the raid on his compound is the video footage of the world’s most notorious terrorist watching himself on television replay. These particular clips are disarming because while the world painfully knows that bin Laden is a master communicator, we have yet to see how he makes his particular brand of sausage. There are parts of bin Laden’s image that now, in retrospect, seem to have been carefully crafted. He wasn’t hiding in the caves of Tora Bora, and his age showed in his graying beard, which he dyed black for cameras.

And now we have the Internet, especially social networks, where the multiple forms of content shared by people and brands form signals that amplify in even greater ways. Today, those who participate in various social networks online also engage in a form of magic, using illusions to broadcast signals to their audiences. Instead of studios producing content on television, the willing participants play the part of studio and producer, using a variety of mechanisms to interact with audiences. We share check-ins from concerts and sporting events, and send Instagrams to make sure others know how yummy weekend brunch looks. We are in the age of the ubiquitous status updates, constantly sending ambient signals, where our audience has only two choices: to form some loosely-tiled mosaic of who we are—or to tune out entirely.

Surely, the benefits of participation are well-documented, but there are costs, too. While information is being channeled through these social networks, the fact remains the same illusions created by television have mutated into a stronger strain within social media. While more interesting information gets to us faster, the downside is that the new channels—and, we are all the channels—sometimes unknowingly create “little white illusions” that, over time, compound into something that may or may not reflect real life.

Well, life is full of illusions. And on social networks, those illusions are amplified. Many who broadcast are not who they appear to be. I don’t say this negatively—rather, this is the magic of social networks. All of the tools we have to update our status, to share pictures, to broadcast location, and any other signal empower us all to express ourselves online and (hopefully) eventually help us end up where we’d like to be.

The dark underbelly, however, is that much of the content we consume through these networks are highly subject to illusion. We may get the impression that folks are more famous, powerful, influential, or informed than they really are, or funnier or nicer than they really are. Social networks naturally concentrate and amplify particular voices, no matter whether those voices are right or wrong. We’ve all at one time at least fallen prey to these false signals, myself included, further fueling the engine of social networks.

I have recently met more people who tend to only inform themselves by what they read online, particularly Twitter, putting real-time information ahead of real-life information and basic common sense. I see folks who assume that because they are followed by someone with influence or because they engage in light @reply banter with specific people that they have the inside track on access, and that eventually that access could convert to something real. Sure, this can and does happen once in a while, but the reality is that most of the time, it does not.

We are all following someone we want access to. It all has a cumulative effect, and we are all both pushers and addicts. The combination of blogs, tweets, updates, mentions, and @replies oftentimes act as mirrors and smokescreens, potentially tricking us into believing that what we see on social networks may truly be what actually occurs in real life. Enjoy the show.