Everything changes. Nothing changes.
This morning, I was reading a post from last April by Fred Stutzman about social networks like Facebook and MySpace when I came upon this sentence: “98 percent of the people who use MySpace don’t realize they are using a social networking community.” Suddenly, the fog lifted, and the sun came out, and on the tip of every blade of grass I could see a single perfect dewdrop and in each perfect dewdrop I could see reflected the entire glistening lawn. Ah, clarity! There’s nothing like a good squirt of mental Windex in the a.m. The man continued: “They are simply using a website that their friends are on – they are using it for the same reasons they use email or IM. The social networking aspects are practically moot – they are interested in the content (friends profiles) and goofing off.”
“They are interested in the content and goofing off.” Right there, in nine words, is all you need to know about the Internet and, indeed, all you need to know about all media, past, present and future. And the reason you know in your gut that it’s all you need to know – the reason you know it’s true – is because it’s true of you: You, dear blog reader, are interested in the content and goofing off. I, too, am interested in the content and goofing off. We are all interested in the content and goofing off. Social networking is bunk.
Oh sure, the idea of the Internet marking some profound change in our relationship to media, of it being a kind of alchemical crucible that – presto chango – transforms us from consumers into producers (or “prosumers” or “conducers” or whatever tortured neologism you might force through your lips) is an awfully pretty one. But most everything we’re learning about the actual production and consumption of online media contradicts it. On every glorious “community” site, it’s just a tiny group that’s producing the bulk of the content, which is, of course, the same few-to-many model that has always characterized the media.
Does that mean everyone else is just a passive consumer? Of course not. But that was never the case. Everyone has – and always has had – interests and hobbies and opinions. Everyone has always been a “producer” as well as a “consumer” of culture, and the Internet offers new (if not necessarily better) opportunities for self-expression. And that’s good. But it doesn’t amount to a reinvention of media. Today’s new media, as Steven Johnson writes, “are not historically unique; they draw upon and resemble a number of past traditions and forms, depending on their focus.”
What we are learning, day by day, is there is no such thing as “many-to-many” when it comes to media. Or, as one blogger recently put it, in a different context, “community doesn’t scale.” The Internet is a party line and a broadcasting medium and a mall. Sure, it puts a different spin on each of those things, but it’s fundamentally the same, not fundamentally different. If you want social networking, go to a cocktail party. Or a church supper.