Social Media : Expanding or diminishing our lives?

I recently started a discussion under this heading on LinkedIn Group TED: Ideas Worth Spreading and found myself asked by another member,: “You realize that ‘social media’ is ‘the internet’ right?”

Are they now synonymous?    I instinctively believed that there is a difference, but struggled to define what it was.  My subsequent definition1 was accepted by the original questioner, which I found oddly gratifying.

Since then, typically, I’ve noticed relevant references everywhere.

One of the more thought provoking is in Andrew Keen’s book Digital Vertigo (currently an Amazon free download).  His definitions of Web 2.02 and Web 3.03 have made me realise how great the overlap between ‘social media’ and ‘the internet’ has become.

Keen is described on Amazon as: “… the ‘anti-Christ’ of Silicon Valley…a dot-com apostate…” and “…the leading contemporary critic of the Internet”.  He wrote The Cult of the Amateur in 2006 when Web 2.0 had become firmly embedded and, with Digital Vertigo, published in 2011, seems well qualified to define these web generations.

His reference points for Web 2.0 are Google, YouTube and Wikipedia, all tools shaped and defined by the ‘cult of the amateur’Keen argues “…much of the content filling up YouTube, MySpace, and blogs is just an endless digital forest of mediocrity which, unconstrained by professional standards or editorial filters, can alter public debate and manipulate public opinion.”

Google, as a search engine, reflects the ‘cult of the amateur’ slightly differently from the others.  Keen says that “…the logic of Google’s search engine reflects the wisdom of the crowds….the more people [who] click on a link that results from a search, the more likely that link will come up in subsequent searches… other words, it just tells us what we already know.”

Similarly the ordering of headlines on aggregation sites like Reddit and Digg is dictated by  what other users are reading and tends to be “…a mirror of our most banal interests…” making “… a mockery of traditional news media and [turning] current affairs into a game of Trivial Pursuit”.

Keen suggests Web 3.0 is best characterised by Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.  He uses Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller Vertigo as the central narrative of his latest book.  The film’s twin themes of surveillance and voyeurism are used to illustrate the appalling consequences of the internet journey we are on.

The ubiquitous frenzy to share our opinions, however ill-formed, and the daily trivia of our lives with anyone and everyone is resulting in a more fragmented, superficial and transparent society.

This has all sorts of dire consequences for our culture: its creativity, expertise and erudition.  He has an illuminating description of the internet as “all edge, no centre” and highlights, with many alarming examples, the effects of this “endless digital forest of mediocrity.”

There are many positives for communicators in the rapidly evolving digital platforms. Look at the acknowledged effectiveness of social media in the Arab Spring as a good case in point.  But, be warned. If we fail to recognise what we might lose before it’s too late, the future may be less inspiring and less rewarding on many fronts.


1 Social media is a way of sharing (content, information, status, location, etc) that allows interaction while the internet is the communications vehicle that enables much of the above and supports other communication channels – web page publishing, skype, etc. Social implies interaction / collaboration and many to many, whereas the internet also enables the publishing of hosted information which is not social.”

2 Tim O’Reilly presents an informative view of the origins and evolution of Web 2.0 in his What is Web 2.0 review

3 Nova Spivack’s Special Report on Web 3.0: The Third Generation Web is Coming also contains an interesting web evolution timeline (from 1980 to 2020 and beyond) and definitions


About madeleinekavanagh

Internal comms specialist with a career spanning advertising, car sales and management consulting. My greatest legacy (so far) - my son!
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