Almost every day, somebody tells me there is no way they can survive without some social media like Facebook or Twitter. Otherwise mature adults fearful that without these dubious services, they would have no human contact ever again, they would die of hunger and the sky would come crashing down too.
It is particularly disturbing for me to hear this attitude from community activists and campaigners. These are people who aspire to change the world, but can you really change the system using the tools the system gives you?
Revolutionaries like Gandhi and the Bolsheviks don't have a lot in common: but both of them changed the world and both of them did so by going against the system. Gandhi, of course, relied on non-violence while the Bolsheviks continued to rely on violence long after taking power. Neither of them needed social media but both are likely to be remembered far longer than any viral video clip you have seen recently.
With US border guards asking visitors for their Facebook profiles and Mark Zuckerberg being a regular participant at secretive Bilderberg meetings, it should be clear that Facebook and conventional social media is not on your side, it's on theirs.
Kettling has never been easier
When street protests erupt in major cities such as London, the police build fences around the protesters, cutting them off from the rest of the world. They become an island in the middle of the city, like a construction site or broken down bus that everybody else goes around. The police then set about arresting one person at a time, taking their name and photograph and then slowly letting them leave in different directions. This strategy is called kettling.
Facebook helps kettle activists in their arm chair. The police state can gather far more data about them, while their impact is even more muted than if they ventured out of their home.
You are more likely to win the lottery than make a viral campaign
Every week there is news about some social media campaign that has gone viral. Every day, marketing professionals, professional campaigners and motivated activists sit at their computer spending hours trying to replicate this phenomenon.
Do the math: how many of these campaigns can really be viral success stories? Society can only absorb a small number of these campaigns at any one time. For most of the people trying to ignite such campaigns, their time and energy is wasted, much like money spent buying lottery tickets and with odds that are just as bad.
It is far better to focus on the quality of your work in other ways than to waste any time on social media. If you do something that is truly extraordinary, then other people will pick it up and share it for you and that is how a viral campaign really begins. The time and effort you put into trying to force something to become viral is wasting the energy and concentration you need to make something that is worthy of really being viral.
An earthquake and an escaped lion never needed to announce themselves on social media to become an instant hit. If your news isn't extraordinary enough for random people to spontaneously post, share and tweet it in the first place, how can it ever go far?
The news media deliberately over-rates social media
News media outlets, including TV, radio and print, gain a significant benefit crowd-sourcing live information, free of charge, from the public on social media. It is only logical that they will cheer on social media sites and give them regular attention. Have you noticed that whenever Facebook's publicity department makes an announcement, the media are quick to publish it ahead of more significant stories about social or economic issues that impact our lives? Why do you think the media puts Facebook up on a podium like this, ahead of all other industries, if the media aren't getting something out of it too?
The tail doesn't wag the dog
One particular example is the news media's fascination with Donald Trump's Twitter account. Some people have gone as far as suggesting that this billionaire could have simply parked his jet and spent the whole of 2016 at one of his golf courses sending tweets and he would have won the presidency anyway. Suggesting that Trump's campaign revolved entirely around Twitter is like suggesting the tail wags the dog.
The reality is different: Trump has been a prominent public figure for decades, both in the business and entertainment world. During his presidential campaign, he had at least 220 major campaign rallies attended by over 1.2 million people in the real world. Without this real-world organization and history, the Twitter account would have been largely ignored like the majority of Twitter accounts.
On the left of politics, the media have been just as quick to suggest that Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have been supported by the "Facebook generation". This label is superficial and deceiving. The reality, again, is a grass roots movement that has attracted young people to attend local campaign meetings in pubs up and down the country. Getting people to get out and be active is key. Social media is incidental to their campaign, not indispensible.
Real-world meetings, big or small, are immensely more powerful than a social media presence. Consider the Trump example again: if 100,000 people receive one of his tweets, how many even notice it in the non-stop stream of information we are bombarded with today? On the other hand, if 100,000 bellow out a racist slogan at one of his rallies, is there any doubt whether each and every one of those people is engaged with the campaign at that moment? If you could choose between 100 extra Twitter followers or 10 extra activists attending a meeting every month, which would you prefer?
Do we need this new definition of a Friend?
Facebook is redefining what it means to be a friend.
Is somebody who takes pictures of you and insists on sharing them with hundreds of people, tagging your face for the benefit of biometric profiling systems, really a friend?
If you want to find out what a real friend is and who your real friends really are, there is no better way to do so then blowing away your Facebook and Twitter account and waiting to see who contacts you personally about meeting up in the real world.
If you look at a profile on Facebook or Twitter, one of the most prominent features is the number of friends or followers they have. Research suggests that humans can realistically cope with no more than about 150 stable relationships. Facebook, however, has turned Friending people into something like a computer game.
This research is also given far more attention then it deserves though: the number of really meaningful friendships that one person can maintain is far smaller. Think about how many birthdays and spouse's names you can remember and those may be the number of real friendships you can manage well. In his book Busy, Tony Crabbe suggests between 10-20 friendships are in this category and you should spend all your time with these people rather than letting your time be spread thinly across superficial Facebook "friends".
This same logic can be extrapolated to activism and marketing in its many forms: is it better for a campaigner or publicist to have fifty journalists following him on Twitter (where tweets are often lost in the blink of an eye) or three journalists who he meets for drinks from time to time?
Facebook alternatives: the ultimate trap?
Numerous free, open source projects have tried to offer an equivalent to Facebook and Twitter. GNU social, Diaspora and identi.ca are some of the more well known examples.
Trying to persuade people to move from Facebook to one of these platforms rarely works. In most cases, Metcalfe's law suggests the size of Facebook will suck them back in like the gravity of a black hole.
To help people really beat these monstrosities, the most effective strategy is to help them live without social media, whether it is proprietary or not. The best way to convince them may be to give it up yourself and let them see how much you enjoy life without it.
Share your thoughts
The FSFE community has recently been debating the use of propriety software and services. Please feel free to join the list and click here to reply on the thread.