21 September 2010

It's another Blog Off: do social sites like Facebook connect or isolate?

So today's another Blog Off, an event where bloggers of all stripes weigh in on the same topic. This week's topic is "Do social sites like Facebook connect the world or isolate people?" The topic was spawned by a flawed scrap of research that the mainstream media pounced on like vultures on road kill. Never mind that the research in question amounted to a poll conducted by an undergraduate of her peers in a  psych class. What mattered was the finding that Facebook is a magnet for narcissists and self-haters equally. Because no one seems to understand statistics or how to construct a logical argument, headlines exploded in August. Within days, the conventional wisdom had jumped to yet another flawed assumption. Namely that Facebook causes narcissism.

From the Telegraph
Facebook provides an ideal setting for narcissists to monitor their appearance and how many ‘friends’ they have, the study said, as it allows them to thrive on ‘shallow’ relationships while avoiding genuine warmth and empathy.
From the Toronto Star
Compelled to tell your 500 Facebook chums every time you can’t find your sunglasses? Want the world to know you look like Robert Pattison? Post new Photoshopped pictures every day?

You, my friend, are narcissistic and insecure.

I could go on and list quotes and back links for days but you see my point. The mainstream media seems to be threatened by social media, the new kid on the block, and the results are predictable.

I have my share of problems with Facebook. I think of it as a cul de sac on the World Wide Web. It's the new AOL I tell people all the time. Facebook is a duplicated, smaller version of the web and despite the fact that it connects people from their respective pasts and presents, the only thing it isolates is people from their futures. I'll get to that in a minute but I love having a site where I can catch up with my nieces and nephews, my siblings, old friends from high school and college and the rest. But my past is my past for a reason. It's pleasant to hang out there from time to time but it doesn't help me get to where I want to go. I think that's Facebook's Achilles' heel by the way and it will be what does it in. It's all but impossible to meet new people there.

I don't know about anybody else, but my life has been completely and utterly transformed by social media. I document most of it on Facebook, but none of this transformation starts there. For me it started with Blogger.

Two-and-a-half years ago I was an unknown designer in a second-tier city tucked along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to the kick start I got from my Blogger blog, here I sit as some kind of an industry thought leader (I hate that term) with a network of peers, colleagues and friends that spans the globe. My involvement with Blogger, and later Twitter has brought me face to face with a good number of these colleagues and friends. From the first half of 2010 alone here are a few of my personal/ professional connections.

Kelly Morrisseau writes the blog KitchenSync. She is the first designer/ blogger who ever reached out to me as a new blogger and we've maintained a a strong friendship ever since. Here we are in New York last February.
This is the community of design bloggers as it looked last winter. That photo was taken at a cocktail party in New York hosted by Brizo faucets and Manning, Selvage and Lee Public Relations last February.
Here's Saxon Henry, me, Sabrina Velandry, Paul Velandry, Johnny Grey, Chuck Wheelock and Andie Day. We met on Twitter and we're sitting in the first and second rows of a Fashion Week fashion show. We've been brought together by Brizo because we're design bloggers.

This is me speaking at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (KBIS) in Chicago last April. I got to that spot because a year-and-a-half ago Google itself found me via my blog and pulled me out of the scrum. They recommended me to Masco and fast forward a few months and there I am speaking at Kraftmaid's KBIS booth.

This is Zoe Voight and I hanging out in the press room at a trade show. I'm in the press room as a credentialed journalist because somebody at Veeder + Perman Public Relations loves me and loves my blog.

Here's a bunch of design bloggers at a seminar sponsored by @brizo.

Here I am giving another talk at another trade show, the Southeast Builder's Conference this time. Masco is paying me to deliver a talk on how much my blog has changed my life. Pinch me.

Everything that's going on in those photos, all of those personal connections, were made possible through my social media presence. When I hear claims that I'm further isolated I laugh at the absurdity of it.

As my travel schedule starts to take form for 2011 I just shake my head. On the inside I still think of myself as that unknown designer in a second-tier city. Based on the events where I'll be speaking, it's pretty clear that that's no longer the case.

Social media sites make the world a smaller place. They present an opportunity for real, personal connections that transcend geography to a degree and with an immediacy that's never been possible in the whole of human history. Social media generally and Twitter in particular, is where I find my future.

As is the case with anything, thew only thing social site offer is a set of tools. By the time sites like Facebook grow to the size they are (they claim 500 million members worldwide) people are bound to abuse those tools and some people can find themselves more isolated. But just as is the case with anything, it's not automatic. Facebook doesn't cause anything but compromised privacy. People who are thrown to narcissism or isolation are going to be those things with or without social media sites. All of that is a distraction from what's possible though. Better than anything I know, social media takes what's possible and makes it what's probable. As I look forward to the career shifts, adventures and challenges headed my way in the next few months I can't help but say that I owe all of it to Blogger, Twitter, YouTube, Posterous and yes, even Facebook. Me isolated? Don't make me laugh.

As part of a Blog Off, you can go to the official site and see the links to all of participating bloggers' posts. As the day goes on, I'll start listing them here as well.


  1. Great post. I shake my head in disbelief every time someone comes up with one of these new Chicken Little theories about how such-and-such on the internet is doing X to peoples' brains. Unless we've received an alien infusion of new DNA somewhere along the line, humans haven't changed in a very long time and something as fleeting as a social media website has about as much effect as me peeing in the Pacfic.

  2. Isolating? As a stay-at-home mom for quite a number of years, and a bona fide insomniac, Facebook has opened the world for me rather than closed it up. I have made new friends and "found" new friends from the past. If I find that things get too personal, boring, political, religious, or anything that does not improve the general quality of my day, I quietly "hide" people, sending them back to oblivion, no harm, no foul. In general, the people from the past have grown up and are kinder and more gentle. Every day I learn something about something silly or simple - like how to correctly fold a t-shirt. I pick up tidbits about kitchen design or learn about gorgeous fabrics or art pieces that will never be a part of my life but which I enjoy immensely. Friends direct me to articles that interest me but that I might have missed. And then there's the Onion, and Regretsy, and all of the many other sites that simply amuse me and often tickle my funny bone for more than a day or two.

    Will Facebook change my life for the better? I believe it already has. Will social networking propel me into the spotlight, highlighting my talents as a mother or a minimum wage worker? Nah. But it did just so for my friend, and I am overjoyed to be able to watch his trajectory into a vast, real-life network of colleagues and friends. That, too, just makes me feel good.

  3. Thanks, Paul, for a great perspective on all this. I'm enjoying the new connections through Twitter and discovering people with common interests from all over the world. Meeting them in person at events and conferences makes it even more exciting when I travel...that's not isolation!

  4. Melody: I was going to work the phrase "ad hoc ergo propter hoc" to describe peoples' flawed cause and effect conclusions but I didn't want to lose anybody. Thanks for the compliment!

    Kathy: Out of all the re-connections I've made through Facebook, you are in a league of your own lady. I am thrilled to have you back in my life after a 25-year absence.

    Mark: I couldn't agree more and count our collaborations as the direct result of Blogger and Twitter.

  5. These sites are all tools and they can isolate or expand someone's personal bubble. I agree with you Paul that people tend to track one way or another, Facebook isn't the perpetrator of creating isolation, it's just the vehicle.

  6. I think you have a good point about Facebook isolating its people from their futures. It's so easy to meet and start conversations with new people on Twitter, but Facebook does not lend to that at all. However, I would never say Facebook isolates people in general - no less than video games, or reading, or telephones, or cars (meaning, you can make that argument about just about anything)! Great post.

  7. Bob: You're another important connection I've made through all of this. It's my social-media-generated connections that make me feel so damn engaged in my life. The whole premise that I'm isolating myself is absurd.

    Emily: Thanks for the comment. I think Facebook gets singled out because it's so new and so big. Traditional modes of connecting people and the folks who have vested interest in them can't help but feel threatened by it.

  8. @Melody before I could type a comment, I had to stop laughing at your "pee in the Pacific" quip :-)

    Paul, you are just riding the rails. I know you've met all these really cool people and my story meeting you was when I was remodeling a family room and did not know when end of the crown moulding was up. I posted a picture and you tweeted back. "Are you sure?" I asked.. "Trust me, I do this for a living" you replied back and I have since and not looked back. Turns out you are pretty good at a lot of other things as well.

    And before you get a big head and all full of yourself, you're still a little off on your Mad Men analysis :-)

  9. That's right! I forgot all about your crown molding project. You never did post those photos by the way...

    You're another one of the great connections I've made. Seriously.

  10. Great post Paul - It is amazing what social media can do for some and how afraid and fearful others are of it. I'm going to be sending this on to some people that I know.

  11. Thanks Lauren. I'm forever stunned by some people's fear of it. Forever stunned. But then again, some people are afraid to fly. I mean that figuratively and literally.

  12. Cool to see so many face-to-face meetings with people you've met via social media!

  13. I will definitely agree with you about Blogger, seeing as that is how I found you and your treasure trove of information in the first place. And you are a friendly helpful blogger too! :-)

    As far as Facebook, while most of my "friends" are indeed people from my past or present, I do have some Farmville neighbors I have never laid eyes upon in my life (names passed on from a friend of a friend of a friend, etc). Some are from England, Greece, and the Netherlands. We fertilize each other's fields, and give each other Mystery Gifts, and spread a little international goodwill and cheer.

    It's a connection I never would have had without Facebook, but really, it's not like I would show up on their doorsteps for a visit or anything. (My mother, on the other hand, has started a few real friendships with her neighbors across the pond--just emails, but definitely more personal info sharing going on.)

  14. the interwebs has most definitely connected me to others in ways i never dreamed possible just 5 years ago. i've made multitudes of friends all over the globe, from casual acquaintances to close, life-long relationships; been introduced to all kinds of resources related to my field that otherwise would have been unknown to me (information sources and human contacts both); and most importantly in these tough times, met actual paying clients, as well as introduced myself to a pool of thousands of potential new clients- all without leaving the comfort of my home office!

    social media is both active and passive entertainment, melded with work and social interaction, kind of like TV, magazines, and a cocktail party all mixed up; and it's also clearly the future for global relationships, both business and personal. if you want to use it to isolate yourself, that's certainly your choice, but it also offers so, so, much more!

  15. Steve: I'm barely scratching the surface, believe me.

    MLC: You're not the first person I've heard say that about Farmville. I suppose it says something about my character but I measure everything in terms of a return on my time. I want to connect with people and make money at the same time. The two aren't mutually exclusive and making money from social media doesn't involve pyramid schemes or multi-level marketing. I guess I'm saying all of this to say that I don't play Farmville.

    Christian: You sir are another great find I found through Twitter. I feel fashionable by osmosis around you. Thanks!

  16. Both your and Bob Borson's posts today on this topic are going in my "proof of the power of social media" toolkit. Stories like these are great examples of how hard it is to predict the ROI of blogging. How could you know all of this was going to happen?

    Stories like this are also great reminders that the only way all of this will happen is to be yourself, without an agenda, and to be open to the opportunities that present themselves. It might just be the unpredicted connections that provide the biggest ROI.

  17. Thanks Denese, this post is just scratching the surface. I am a zealot on the front lines of this and I am enjoying every moment.

  18. I feel I must first point out The Star's most erroneous affront - that it is Robert PattiNson, not Pattison. Okay, whew, now that we're all clear on that one...

    Excellent point on facebook's lack of “future” - perhaps they are aware of this problem and that's why they started those uber annoying “People you might know” suggestions on the home page? I'll refrain from ranting on that, though.

    What I really wanted to comment on was your statement: “Social media sites make the world a smaller place.”
    After reading this, the bit I take away is that, if anything, social media isolates those that DON'T participate. They are the ones missing out on the real-time exchanges of the ever-changing real world. They are ignorant of the heated debate over shoe tubs and other vital points of interest. Seriously, social media has done wonders for communication and the sharing of ideas. I hardly think humanity is threatened by such a progressive movement from which everyone stands to profit.

    @DogWalkBlog I just had to giggle at your initial exchange with Paul:
    "Are you sure?"..."Trust me, I do this for a living"

  19. Cham: Thanks for your comment and thanks for throwing your hat in the ring today. You're absolutely right about the isolation of people who are still standing on the platform as this train pulls out. I deal with it all the time and I cannot imagine publicists and PR people who are Twitter-illiterate, but they are out there. It's absurd, really.

    @dogwalkblog recreated our first exchange exactly. It's hilarious in retrospect because he and I keep in very regular contact now. It's hard to believe that there was a time not too long ago when there was no @dogwalkblog in my life.

  20. Your post inspires me no end, although I'm light years behind you. I see the possibilities. I was a lucky attendee of the latest Brizo Blogger 19 and you are right. It was just because of my lil old blog!

  21. Thanks! I tell Charlie Kondek all the time that all of this is his fault!


Talk to me!