When Social Networking Make Us Anti-Social

I was intrigued by Malcolm Gladwell’s insights in the recent New Yorker piece, “Why The Revolution Won’t Be Tweeted.”  It rejects the perception, common among some social media enthusiasts, that social networking has the power to foment true activism for social change. Gladwell talks about the “weak ties” that characterize most online networks, arguing that a far closer relationship is necessary for real influence. At least, the kind that pushes people towards risky or inconvenient action.

The piece attracted some flack, but it rang true to me, at least in one sense. Social media is overrated as an instigator, especially when it comes to political change. (Remember the Iranian “Twitter Revolution” that wasn’t?) But it also got me thinking about other hyperbolic or deluded beliefs about social networking. Could it be that the social web, with its uncanny ability to broaden our circle and multiply our contacts exponentially, could actually be making us anti-social? Have we reached so far beyond the tipping point that the social model has tipped over?

Twitter, for one, is as much a broadcast medium as a connecting technology. Facebook, with its reciprocal follower model, is more truly social, and often more personal. According to Facebook, its average user has 130 friends. That might conform less to Gladwell’s definition of weak ties, but it still leaves me wondering if we’re silently confusing quality with quantity.

I think social media basically magnifies what we essentially are. For naturally social individuals, we are more so. For those who don’t mix, it can reinforce our hunger for privacy and solitude. But, the rise of the social Web does carry risks. Here are five ways in which social media can actually make us behave in fundamentally anti-social ways.

Confusing “liking” something with real commitment or even approval. Let’s face it, clicking that “like” button is innocuous, and it’s fun. But let’s not be lulled into thinking that joining a Facebook petition is an act of social good. It’s not.

Giving in to the temptation to manage our relationships online. I’m not one to rail against email or mourn the death of the face-to-face relationship, but it’s easy to slip into completely time-shifted communications with even close friends. Time-shifted, as in, when it’s convenient for me, when I can find a minute, or when I want to avoid real engagement.

The anonymity effect. The anonymous web is like a drug. It’s a truth serum in that it elicits far more nasty, brutal or embarrassingly personal commentary than transparent posting ever could. But, it’s also a mask for liars and charlatans. Anti-social personified.

Misplaced trust. Last week I was asked for a reference about a former colleague by someone whom I don’t really know, but who’s a member of an online professional group I’ve been active in for years. I was tempted to offer important, but sensitive information, but discretion prevailed, and I was careful in my comments. Again,”weak ties.” If the caller had been recommended by a close friend within the group, I would have shared far more.

Confusing popularity with influence. This goes to the heart of Gladswell’s thesis. A huge number of Twitter followers or a large Facebook circle can mean that you’re entertaining or popular, but don’t let it go to your head. Real influence is much rarer….and far more valuable.

Has PowerPoint Made Us Stupid?

Recently I sat through another firm’s presentation at a client offsite and realized by the end of the session that I had spent 20 minutes admiring their slides. The presentation template had nicely rounded text boxes in pleasing pastels and clean, elegant fonts. The text was minimal and uncluttered. What was the content? Um…. I’ll get back to you.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” said General James Mattis, the Joint Forces commander in Afghanistan, in famously dismissing the spaghetti-bowl slide featured at a military conference. He was referring not to the template envy that distracted me, but to the constant pressure to reduce complex information, thinking and relationships into bullets and flowcharts. Worse, according to the General, it fools us into thinking we understand what we actually haven’t begun to grasp.

War is hell, right? We all struggle with the packaging of information and ideas, particularly those of us in PR. And there are times when packaging trumps substance, or when a complicated, but worthwhile recommendation is lost because it can’t be reduced to ten slides or less. In our zeal to compress research and present content in ways that are easily digestible and esthetically pleasing, we sometimes forget our mission.

But the enemy isn’t just PowerPoint. For me, it’s about the digital age. Who has time to mine for what’s not already obvious at a glance? More importantly, who has the sustained concentration to spend more than a few minutes on a memo or a plan? It’s no wonder that I’m calling for ever more succinct memos, slimmer decks, and more streamlined flow charts.

Add in the ubiquity of multimedia technology and our always-on culture, coupled with the rise of social media, and it’s easy to think we’re moving towards some sort of “post literate” era. Writer Gary Shteyngart describes a post-literate society in his excellent “Super Sad True Love Story,” a satire about a dystopian future in which reading and writing are no longer necessary and rarely done.

But I’m not really worried about the death of literacy, or of intellects clouded by simplistic software templates. It’s more about the failure to look below the surface, to acknowledge complexity, and to dig more deeply for the fresh creative concept. Because, as important as it is for us to package and promote our ideas, it’s our thinking that clients really value. Not our slides.

Offlining: The New Digital Detox

I’ve known for a while that multitasking is a lie. I don’t know anyone who can truly spread their attention across multiple jobs with equal focus. Like most people, I tend to toggle back and forth among tasks – blogging, watching Top Chef, listening to my daughter, ruminating about tomorrow’s schedule. It’s like trying to eat a five-course meal by tasting everything at once. It’s possible, but the net result is less enjoyment, if not lower efficiency.

But readjusting your relationship with technology isn’t simple. Because we’re addicts. That’s the other given of our media-feasting culture. Take the sturdy, un-hip BlackBerry. The form factor isn’t sleek like the newer Android devices or even the iPhone. But, on top of every ‘Berry, there’s that red light that blinks when a new message arrives. Reports say that users actually become hooked on the light. It’s a Pavlovian response. We’re helpless. If not CrackBerry, it’s at the very least the Starbucks of digital devices.

And though our appetite is still huge, the human capacity isn’t infinite. There’s that famous Matt Richtel piece about the dangers of technology overload.  It describes how our always-on access to digital gadgets affects how we process information, and how quickly we become distracted…leading us to crave more stimulation, which raises our distraction threshold. You get the idea. Your brain on technology. Next stop, digital detox?

In a way, yes. It’s called offlining, and it’s meant to culminate this Saturday, September 18, for a national day of being unplugged. The idea, which was (of course) dreamed up by a PR guy and an ad guru, was officially unveiled on Father’s Day of this year, as part of a call-to-action for parents to spend more time in face-to-face interaction with their families.

If the offliners have their way, the solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur will be not just the occasion for religious atonement, but a day of digital fasting. Cold turkey…without the turkey, the ‘Berry, the sweets, the tweets, or any of the digital soup we’re bathed in. So far, over 10,000 people pledged to have 10 “device-free” dinners between June and this Saturday. To help spread the word, you can send e-cards downloaded from the offlining website to a tech-addicted friend or family member.

It’s a gimmick, but I love the offlining idea for the same reason that I appreciate the Heart Truth  or Earth Day, or any other call-to-action in the public education model. It’s a terrific use of the power of public relations to raise awareness and even change behavior. For me, a one-day digital fast won’t be too difficult, but it’s symbolic, of course. There’s plenty of room for improvement in my relationship to technology, and every reason to find new ways to cherish my relationship with family.

And there’s one more person in this mix who can use some attention, and that’s me. I’m not Jewish, and, candidly, if I were, I probably wouldn’t mix religious observance with a self-improvement binge, no matter how worthy. But on Saturday, I just might stop the posting and the tweeting and the Facebooking and the Foursquare to have a more important check-in …with myself.

Did The Media Create Terry Jones?

In an interesting sidebar to the Terry Jones firestorm, web host Rackspace today shut down the pastor’s website for violating its acceptable use policy. A good move, I thought. Then I read criticism of the move, on the grounds that it gives Jones even more attention and may trample his right to free speech.

It’s a fair point. Not about free speech – no one’s muzzling Jones, and Rackspace is a private business in any event. But, every move seems to add fuel to the (threatened) fire. How did we get to this point? How could the news cycle over three days revolve around an obscure, small-town pastor with a tiny congregation and a few voices short of a full choir? Has Jones simply manipulated the press with manufactured controversy like a bottom-feeding publicist?

The blazing press reminded me that, after the events of 9/11, I had the grief-induced thought that there should be a media blackout on the attack and its perpetrators – laughable, impractical, and unconstitutional, of course, Yet, what is extremist behavior if not a transparent play for public attention? It’s PR, at the most primitive level.

So, should the press have ignored Jones? Could they have? Media pundits say that the warp speed of news today makes it impossible. They’re probably right, since the Associated Press announcement that it wouldn’t run images of the Koran-burning seemed to have no chilling effect whatever on the story. A Facebook page calling for a media blackout of the day garnered nearly 1000 likers, but not much attention, and even Secretary Hillary Clinton’s call for media restraint was drowned out.

And therein lies the problem.

With government’s leaders rushing to condemn Jones, the story grew arms, legs, and heads over the past week. It was a mistake for the President to have waded into the mess, and his comments seemed badly planned. Mr. Obama dismissed the whole thing as a “stunt,” then warned that it could put U.S. troops in harm’s way, giving it way to much gravity. General Petraus and Defense Secretary Gates got involved. Even Sarah Palin joined the chorus. No mainstream government or political figure could afford to refuse comment. Moral leadership, or personal branding? Both, I think.

So, what’s the media’s responsibility in a case like this? Emory Professor Hank Klibanoff argues that, in the digital age, journalists have a greater obligation to add perspective to their reporting. They should use the resources of the Web to add context and “proportion” to the story, like links to the global reaction from religious and political leaders to the pastor’s provocative remarks.

In the end, Jones is an irresistible – and mediagenic – symbol of a very real struggle. His actions come at the nexus of contradictory trends – nationalism, religious tolerance, anti-terrorism, and more. Well into the Internet age, the mainstream press needs to reinvent its role, one that increasingly includes curating, interpreting, and analyzing the news. But, it’s up to us to try to make sense of what’s happening around us, and our responsibility to speak, blog, advocate, or act, when things feel out of control. In an age where “everyone’s a member of the media,” everyone therefore has a responsibility to keep things in perspective.

How To Be Creative Under Pressure

An episode of “Mad Men” featured Don Draper and Peggy Olson wrestling with a tough creative challenge – how to dream up a breakthrough campaign for Samsonite. Don dismisses a celebrity pitchman as a “lazy” strategy, then criticizes Peggy’s next round of ideas as variations on a theme – a boring one.

At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a booze-soaked all-nighter always seems to result in a clever campaign idea. But what about creative heavy lifting in the real world? Though I personally work better when the pressure’s on (like most agency people), a looming deadline, coupled with Draper-like feedback, can be a real creativity-killer. And, unlike our advertising colleagues, PR pros have to unpack ideas that are not only brand-relevant, but inherently newsworthy. How to work against the clock when everything seems like so much useless baggage?

To gain inspiration, I spoke to some of the most creative professionals I know and searched my own background for the most reliable lessons for producing under pressure.

Let it flow. You can sometimes unblock your thoughts by going back to the drawing board and dreaming up as many quick ideas as you can, – including stupid, impractical, nonsensical, or crazy concepts. One creative I used to work with would start each session with the preamble, “Okay, let’s think about ideas that will get us fired.” It removes the fear of rejection or of seeming stupid – both enemies of invention.

Don’t panic. Fear chills creative thinking, of course. If panic strikes, I start a “write-around” (prepare everything but the centerpiece idea) to gain control over the assignment, then return to the brainstorm process. Others walk around the block, do something else for a while, or even have a drink. (But beware the effects of the “Mad Men”-style three-martini lunch on the creative process, as recounted here.)

Keep on plugging. I’m a firm believer in the inspiration/perspiration rule. Keep at it, in the form of frequent creative sessions, punctuated by breaks and fresh participants where possible. Every hour brings you closer to a workable idea.

Keep it simple. Rather than shooting for the next Old Spice viral phenomenon, focus on a simple idea, well packaged and executed. Simplicity is the soul of creative problem-solving.

Get some fresh brains on the case. It’s easy to lose your objectivity – not to mention your enthusiasm – for a creative task, so send in the outfield if you can. When I’m stuck after hours, I ask my husband to be a sounding board. Sometimes an outside perspective is helpful, sometimes it’s not. But anything beats listening to your own thoughts.

Get visual. Use white boards, inspiration panels, color, shapes, or images to get your thoughts going. I know copywriters who swear by mind maps. I’m too text-oriented to find them very useful, but many creatives do.

Change your environment. When I”m stuck, I find it surprisingly helpful to change positions, walk into another room,  or even rearrange my office. It’s a metaphor for changing your viewpoint, and it sometimes does exactly that.

Sleep. I’m amazed at how often physical factors like fatigue come up as thought-stoppers in conversations with people who make a living selling their ideas. The mind-body connection is powerful, which is probably why I always feel more creative in the morning, and why some people swear by catnaps.

Play. Do a crossword puzzle, play a board or word association game, or role play. It unleashes the imagination and helps you think laterally, which is the key to solving creative problems.

Psych yourself. A marathon runner friend once told me that, when the going gets tough, he tells himself how tired all the other runners are getting, a reminder that mental strength can make the difference. This applies in business too. While the competition’s sleeping, you’re still working. There’s no advantage like perseverance.

Web of Lies: Astroturfing Threatens The PR Business

Astroturfing is like the underbelly of the PR business – large, hidden, and when it pops out, really ugly. A decade ago, that kind of  fake grassroots campaigning was at the edge of public relations, and it happened primarily in politics. Today, the rise of social media has put a new spin on astroturfing, with faux reviews posted all over the Web. And, it’s more closely associated with what many of us in PR do on a daily basis

That’s why the recent settlement between the FTC and Reverb, the PR firm caught trying to game iTunes ratings with reviews by its own staff, is actually good for our industry. An expert quoted by the New York Times puts it more strongly. He says the settlement might be useful to PR firms who want to “resist clients who demand they play dirty.”

Wow. So, who is really responsible here? In this case, it seems like no one twisted arms at Reverb. MobileCrunch actually outed the firm last year for openly marketing its team of review-posting interns to help developers promote gaming apps. In settling with Reverb last week, the FTC warned again that paid endorsers, PR firms, and anyone benefiting through “material connections” must disclose the relationship.

And, Reverb isn’t alone. Anyone who frequents Yelp, amazon, or iTunes has learned to be skeptical of, um, creative writing. Last year, executives at Belkin were busted by The Daily Background for offering payment for positive reviews of its products, and for writing reviews themselves under anonymous handles. Retailer Ann Taylor was let off with an FTC warning after offering gift cards to bloggers in exchange for coverage. That was a move in the right direction, since previous guidelines had emphasized individual blogger responsibility.

But, the FTC hasn’t gone far enough with the latest wrist slap. To date, the penalty for astroturfing has been modest public humiliation. Maybe the risk of reputation damage. But though the Reverb case has, in fact, reverberated throughout our industry, no fine was involved, and the consent decree implies no wrongdoing. A hefty payment would be a more powerful deterrent. And, though Reverb seems the bad actor here, why not follow the money to the companies who actually subsidize the payola?

Only with real teeth in its regulations will the FTC will root out the bad Apples (pun intended.) In the meantime, if you’re shopping for apps, or gadgets, or just about anything, check out The Consumerist’s list of 30 Ways You Can Spot Fake Online Reviews. Let the buyer – and promoters – beware.