Social networking is bunk

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.

10 thoughts on “Social networking is bunk

  1. Graham Hill


    Can’t say that I really agree.

    I recently read an article on “Complementary Genius” that you had penned in Strategy + Business. It only presented a lop-sided view of complements in innovation (it completely missed out the importance of understanding the complementarities within the organisation before venturing off in the direction of risky complementary innovations). I would have liked to comment, but, short of writing to the editor, there was no way of doing this. Certainly none that I was going to be bothered to take.

    On your blog however, I can voice my own opinion about your opinions almost at the touch of a few buttons.

    Quite a difference, you might agree.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Ethan


    I suspect you’ll get pummeled for this from social media fans, but I offer two anecdotal or empirical items that bolster your claims:

    1. Lee Goldberg is on MySpace now, and has no idea why (at least not in the main post text).

    2. Overheard at breakfast today (and I swear I am not making this up):

    A: Hey everyone, I signed up for a MySpace account last night!

    B,C,D: Cool! Uh, what does it do?

    A: I don’t know, but you can have friends and stuff – anyway everyone uses it – here is my address! (Writes URL on scrap paper and gives to friends.)

    Make of this what you will.

  3. Rob Jones

    And it’s not just social networking that’s bunk. Most of the stuff out there is. Very few internet “next big things” have had impact beyond the limited scope of the early adopter crowd. Just looking back through the last few posts on this blog point out a couple of others: the long tail; the death of newsprint. Here’s another: the internet will kill TV.

  4. Graham Hill


    Now what was that about serendipity?

    I decided to follow the links from your previous post to see who you are and why you apparently have such strong opinions on so many “work in progress” things.

    Your TypePad moniker lead me to the “Form Follows Function” blog which in turn lead me to Beadley Enterprises, a web development company. And the featured project on this website? A member driven motorsports news website called “At the Kerbside”, where the readers decide which news items the site will feature.

    If this isn’t a simple example of a social network in action, then I will throw away my textbooks on Social Network Analysis.

    So Rob, is At the Kerbside bunk too?

    Graham Hill

  5. Jerry Bowles

    Well said, Nick. I’m adding Social Networking is bunk to the list of radical truths I have recently come to hold self-evident, joining two newfound verities that I’ve written about recently, i.e., most CEOs shouldn’t blog and Microsoft is cooler than most people think.

  6. Graham Hill


    Social networks are just the medium. A tool through which to do a job. What is discussed over them is just the message. The job the tool enables.

    My assumption has always been that the discussion should be able to encompass a wide variety of viewpoints, including robust point and counter-point.

    Unlike so-many who seem to believe to the contrary, I do NOT believe that the social-network medium is also the social-networking message. We have to look to human evolution as a social animal for that.

    Keep up the good work.

    Graham Hill

  7. Rob Jones


    Ouch! Nice work, and thanks for following through on the links. My poorly made point was not that internet-based social networking does not exist, it plainly does. It’s just not registering on the radar of “ordinary” people. It’s not making a difference to them right now. In that sense, it’s bunk.

    We’re all among the early adopters of this stuff, and have a tendancy to think everyone cares as much as we do. The importance and intertia of the “next big thing” (currently social networking) is constantly overstated in the blogosphere, and the blogosphere is consistent in believing it’s own hype.

    Sure, I believe there is a place for social networking in the future. It’s just not going to chenge the world that much.

  8. johndodds

    The key surely is that being connected in a network sense is utterly different from having a true connection with someone. The latter is what any business needs to exploit but the former is a much bigger number and so they choose to build a fallacious business case around it.

    I’ve expanded upon what I see as the essential difference between co-operative crowds and narcissistic social networks here and about how my personal connection to famous people is worth nothing in social networking terms here.

  9. :)

    Mirror in the face on the goofing off part, but otherwise somewhat Victorian. I don’t think you can stop this tide. Social networking certainly won’t go away simply because it doesn’t exist. The immediacy of access and the ability to interact up and down the ladder make the internet far more compelling and useful than any simple broadcasting medium could. You may continue to hope that journalism will stay in the hands of the few, the the proud, the connected. The landed aristocracy had some similar ideas. Anyway, I love reading your blog.. even if you ARE only a well respected journalist and not one of my friends with a hot profile

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