The age of 'ego media'

Facebook and similar sites don't make us more social, they make us more self-absorbed

September 07, 2010|By Melinda Clem

How do you describe a Gen X'er who doesn't tweet and isn't on Facebook? Options include "Luddite," "afraid of change," or "privacy nut." But the answer is not so simple. This type of technology user — seemingly about as common as the ivory-billed woodpecker — does enjoy the online world, though with skepticism and increasing concern.

I am an example of such a "technoddity." I spend hours online, have a career in technology and can wirelessly access this column from a number of gadgets. For me, avoiding most social media is not about fear; quite the contrary, it reflects understanding of what happens to personal data online.

Social media uses our interests, associations and activities to profile us in various ways and then bombard us with ads. Certainly, most of us engage in a little brand promotion with our clothing and accessories, but this is a choice. On the Internet, this is known as allowing users to "opt-in" and define their participation. Rather than being the default, opt-in is unpopular in the online world.

Data disclosure also highlights user responsibility. Consider services where users announce their itinerary or enable tracking of their every movement. We once taught children not to talk to strangers or share personal information. Today, stalking is a hip pastime.

Some argue that social media streamlines contact, but it really calls into question what constitutes communication. While some are quick to share a struggle with a midnight cereal decision, I am less inclined to publicize such dilemmas. Likewise, when my cat climbs the banister and descends by sliding down like a child, I laugh but don't post it to YouTube, assuming a great Siamese sensation will sweep the Internet.

A theme that emerges when we look at some social media is how we actively reduce individual lives to tabloids. The new norm is to publish personal events as headlines and news-bites, no matter how mundane. This "ego media" encourages volume — more followers, more Tweets, more friends, screaming the loudest about everything and anything. Quality of content is secondary; success and prominence are measured in numbers and often obtained with the most outlandish and questionable behavior. It is less about sharing and more about being heard over others — examples of selfishness and egomania that generally are frowned upon in live, social interactions.

What is "social" about any of this? Psychologists assert that no individual can manage hundreds of relationships, but that has not deterred the accumulation of users, followers and endless chatter. Of more psychological interest is how individuals can still act collectively, compassionately and selflessly in tandem with such insularly focused media.

This brings us to another key issue with "ego media": privacy. At question is how these ego media companies adopt business models and make money with user information, both overtly with visible ads and covertly by selling personal data to other companies.

With the volume of information online, ego media loses sight of the individual as a person with privacy rights. Technology and computers see sellable data, not a human but a revenue statistic. It was not a surprise when IBM announced production of personalized billboards, like those in "Minority Report," that use external radio-frequency identification readers and display systems for customized ads. As much as I don't want to see what Big Blue's computers think I may desire, I am even less interested to learn that the person beside me on the train is in need of a foot fungal cream.

Unfortunately, most individuals are not educated sufficiently on avoiding social media dangers, either in how they opt-out or adjust privacy settings, or how their information is archived, sold and accessed. As such, individuals have passively fostered an environment of all-informed computers and little privacy, largely through the rapid adoption of ego media technologies.

Abstention doesn't work for everyone; nor should it be difficult to enjoy a modicum of privacy and still enjoy the real conveniences of social media. Users should be informed how personal data is shared and have the option to impose limits. Opt-in should be a standard for online advertising and marketing, and at minimum, a clear and simple form of opt-out should be available.

Until then, my late night-cravings and the antics of my cats are staying off-line.

Melinda Clem manages an emerging technologies consulting firm, The Clementine Group, and has taught at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Her e-mail is melinda@clem.us.

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