The attention of last resort
It may be a generational thing, or a my-being-a-Luddite thing, but social networking seems to me to have less to do with being social and more to do with self-marketing. MySpace, when it started, was primarily a place to market your band; it was a means to mounting a commercial website without the HTML knowhow. Once people had personal websites, they could be drawn in with the allure of metrics, the thrill of measuring one's reach the way a marketer would -- how many hits you get, what kind of demographic you are drawing, how successful you are at getting target audiences to interact with your site, what you need to say or how much skin you have to show to attract more attention and things like that. The attention, in this realm, becomes a measurable kind of currency, whereas in the dreary real world, it's much harder to put a number on it -- you can't really count how often someone looks at you or answers your questions or has a positive thought about the way you have designed yourself.
So social networking is about quantifying the attention we can receive and finding some solace in that; real-world attention is a severely scarce commodity, but online the number of internet users, and the effectiveness of programmed simulacrums, make it seem limitless. It also can invert the sense of scarcity -- instead of their not being enough attention out there for us to attract, suddenly it's the attention that we can give that becomes treasured and scarce, a powerful feeling and one that is continually stoked by marketers in their attempts to flatter us with the attention they pay -- "Hey you -- yes, you, and only you. I have something I really want to show you. See? See, I knew you would like it. I know you so well!" The internet in general caters to our craving for instant attention -- it promises us the precise kind of audience we want at any time, andif that audience proves elusive, it supplies another conduit for the personal attention of last resort, advertising. If one is lonely and looking for recognition, targeted ads are better than nothing, and for the advertisers, nothing could be better than hitting someone when they are down and vulnerable.
It was only a matter of time before social networks became more explicitly about marketing, since they were already about measuring attention and influence and defining oneself as a certain sort of marketing target. This Economist article looks at the recent developments of integrating ads more smoothly with social networking sites, letting advertisers eavesdrop on the conversations among "friends" and interject themselves when it seems appropriate or lucrative. And Facebook itself will take the commercial behavior of its users -- buying something, participating in some brand's Facebook page -- and try to spread them across the user's network as a kind of advertising, mimicking word-of-mouth. It forces you to be a shill, unless you opt out, and it furthers the perception that people shop to be noticed. Shopping may inevitably be a social activity, but social networking sites are trying to make it the cornerstone of friendship. So one can share such momentous decisions as buying shoes online with friends as if were deeply significant personal news and thereby let people get to know you better -- since after all, we are what we buy and spending money is the only way we can signify we're serious about something.
Social-networking technology basically lets brands aspire to be mistaken for actual peers, things people can have relationships with, and it also encourages people not only to see themselves as brands themselves (the metrics component of social networks already encourages this) but also to monetize their personal brand and treat their friend groups as demographics to exploit -- as people primarily to market to with word-of-mouth recommendations, or automatically generated web notifications. This would be depressing if the groups on the networks resembled one's real-life circle of friends (which one presumes is built on trust rather than exploitation). But there may not be enough incentive for people to groom their networks to make them match their real ones, and the colonization of the networks by marketing reduces that incentive further. The article cites Paul Martino, a proprietor of an early social network, who argues that
the interpersonal connections (called the “social graph”) on such networks are also of low quality. Because few people dare to dump former friends or to reject unwanted friend requests from casual acquaintances, “social graphs degenerate to noise in all cases,” he says. If he is right, social-marketing campaigns will descend into visual clutter about the banal doings of increasingly random people, rather than being the next big thing in advertising.Let's hope he's right.