Deflating the Social Media Hot Air Balloon

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Not a revolutionary
Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, and their ilk -- standard-bearers for the ill-defined phenomenon known as "social media" that is now supposed to be the future of the Web -- are having a tough time these days in the thinking person's press.

Over the past few days, two articles appeared. The first, by Daniel Lyons in Newsweek, compared today's tech entrepreneurs with their Silicon Valley forebears. The second, by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, assessed social media's aspirations to political clout. Both are smart and extremely critical of Web 2.0, and both are worth reading.

Lyons, beginning with some musings on the new Facebook-inspired film The Social Network, goes on to ask a point that is seldom addressed in the breathless blog coverage that makes up most of the tech industry's news of record: Just what is the point of all these stupid fucking companies? Compared to the "scientists and engineers" who essentially founded the Silicon Valley economy with their great ideas, today's generation of Web 2.0 entrepreneurs appear sleazily focused on the quick buck, Lyons observes:

The three hottest tech companies today are Facebook, Twitter, and Zynga. What, exactly, do they do? Facebook lets you keep in touch with your friends; for this profound service to mankind it will generate about $1.5 billion in revenue this year by bombarding its 500 million members with ads. Twitter is a noisy circus of spats and celebrity watching, and its hapless founders still can't figure out how to make money. ... Zynga... reportedly will rake in $500 million this year by getting people addicted to cheesy games like Farmville and Mafia Wars, then selling "virtual goods" to use inside the games.

...

The risk is that by focusing an entire generation of bright young entrepreneurs on such silly things, we'll fall behind in creating the fundamental building blocks of our economy. The transistor and the integrated circuit gave rise to the last half century of prosperity. But what comes next?

Gladwell's story dissects Twitter's claims to profound social relevance. (He doesn't dispute that it is useful for casual socializing, as is Facebook.) Much has been made of the micro-blogging service's supposed roles in protests in Iran and Moldova. As Gladwell points out, however, these roles were vastly over-hyped. He goes on to make the argument that social "networks" such as Facebook and Twitter are inadequate tools for effectuating radical social change such as that seen during the civil rights movement.

Evaluating the outlandish claims of would-be digital messiahs such as Clay Shirky -- who Gladwell hilariously skewers for pointing to the example of a Wall Streeter who got his friend's lost phone back from a teenage girl as an example of social networks' political power -- he concludes, "Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is." He adds, "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro."

The conclusion you'd draw from these two articles, in other words, is that companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Zynga lack both real meaning and real influence. But, boy, are they making money.

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