Is social media good for your career? As the more regular readers of my blog will know this area is the one that I am looking into for my MA. I will blog a bit more about my findings in due course but for now I wanted to touch on some of the wider issues I have come across in my study. I think for many people this question is a redundant one. Many appear to think that social media has had such a profound effect on career that the only question is how do we make use of it now. The horse has bolted, the train has left the station, the world has moved on, we can only keep up now.
I feel though that asking more critical questions about social media are vitally important for two reasons. Firstly just because something appears to be socially dominant does not mean it has to be accepted. History is full of things we look back on and think “why did they put up with that?” when at the time there just seemed no alternative. Secondly I feel a lack of critical questions are asked about social media and asking them often leads to people accusing you of being a luddite. But asking critical questions doesn’t have to lead to rejection (though it might) understanding what something is is vital to establish how to use it and what else you might want to use as well as it. My fear at the moment is that there is too much asking how to use social media well and not enough basing this on a critical understanding of social media.
I want to explore this through a series of paradigms to show how the strengths and weaknesses of social media could be articulated.
Reach vs. Depth
Social media attempts to be social, to look at forming new relationships. Reach describes the ability of social media to give a greater range to who and when you can build a relationship with. Social media exemplifies Marshall McLuhan’s global village, it removes distance and the need to share physical space. This potentially brings people closer to who they need to know, it gives them more opportunity to keep in touch with people they already know and changes who they could know to have global reach mediated through a digital network.
The flip side of reach though is a potential erosion of depth. At a guess I have over 600 LinkedIn connections from 20 different countries but I would struggle to name 20 that I don’t see on a regular basis. Making friends has become so easy you could argue it has become meaningless. Bill Law has pointed out how on-line relationships precisely because they do not share physical space often lack the sense of risk and commitment real world relationships have. I think it’s an important question to ask whether social media architecture facilitates the depth of relationship needed to aid careers development.
Access vs. Overwhelmed
Similarly to how social media enables reach of relationships it facilitates access to information. As the saying goes “information wants to be free” (I don’t particularly like this as a saying but it makes a point here). While before access to information, opinion, research etc. often can with a price (buying the book, booking the conference etc.) I can now access expert opinion for free. Learning increasingly has a negligible cost with the sharing of opinions, articles, blogs, videos etc. online.
The surprising outworking of this is that mass access leads to mass information which seems potentially useful but actually often isn’t. The experience of being overwhelmed creates a potential danger for social media users, there is so much information happening all the time that the pressure to stay up-to-date becomes paralysing. As the philosopher Paul Virilio points out speed can create a myth of progress. Information coming quicker may seem a good thing but in fact it gives us less time to assess, think critically and decide how to take our learning forward as more information is always arriving, demanding our attention.
Creativity vs. Conformation
Social media is often seen to be a powerful tool for creativity. David Gauntlett for example says there is a positive social effect that social media gives us of being able to take control of how we represent ourselves through digital media. This gives us greater potential to build a new or a more authentic portrayal of ourselves, the power is in our hands.
The flips side of this is a process of conformation. Jaron Larnier argues that though we have apparently more control we are in fact given set tools to represent ourselves which tends to lead to us conforming our image to that of others using the same tools. Things actually become more harmoginous on social media not more creative as everyone users the same tools in the same way and ends up with very similar results.
Independence vs. Impact
The claim that is frequently made about social media is that it decentralizes power and so allows for greater independence. Individuals are no longer tied by their geography or their access to resources, social media is free, and social media creates a situation where everyone can be an expert, creating and sharing their views, building new meaningful relationships.
The flipside is that this new found freedom can be beguiling and that social media offers independence but creates very little impact. You may feel like you have the freedom to connect with who you want and share your opinion on a variety of issues but there is a big gap between this and actually creating capital that is useful in the real world. Does the number of LinkedIn connections or retweets or the number of conversations you’ve participated in actually lead to useful capital in the real world to advance a career? There may be a link but the gap can be vast and the skills needed to create useful capital out of social media highly complex.
Collaboration vs. Competition
Finally social media creates a new decentralized focus on social relationships allowing people to work together and collaborate on new and exciting propositions. The logic goes is that social media is interest based and so it is easy to find people to work with, find support from and generally enjoy richer social relationships.
The flip of this is that social media often has a poverty of attention and space for relationships and so people end up competing for attention from others. Alongside the way social media sites themselves overemphasise your vital statistics, encouraging you to grow your connections, you could say that you have a situation dominated by competition. People are “forced” to compete with each other for relationships, connections etc. we tend to judge people (on some level) by their connections and social media (LinkedIn is particularly bad) tells is how we compare to people, how many views we’ve had in the last week or so. This all encourages us to see other people either as assets or competition. We may not always think of things this starkly but these forces pull us away from how much we collaborate or are generous to other people.
Let me re-iterate something I said before, I am not advocating people shouldn’t use social media. Dialogues about social media often become either or discourses with enthusiasts calling for ever increasing adoption and technological Luddites calling for wholesale rejection. I feel that proper critical thinking can create a middle ground that looks for positive uses for social media in the context of critical thought. We need to recommend what social media can not do and is bad as doing as well as the effects it is having on us. Like any environment social media interacts with those who are part of it, it is not just about understanding how we could use it better but how external forces may be using us an social media affects us.