How You Will Change the World with Social Networking

An excerpt from Deanna Zandt's new book, 'Share This!' explains how we share information and find community will change our lives.

The following is an excerpt from Deanna Zandt's 'Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking' (Berrett Koehler, 2010).

Social networking is all the rage, and it's coming at us, a million miles an hour. We're surrounded by a flurry of new technology, and just when we begin to make sense of one tool, a new one arrives on the scene.

All this activity leaves us little time to contemplate any forest for all these trees, let alone think about the bigger picture of how this technology will change the future. But here's the secret: How we share information, find community, and both connect and disconnect will give us unprecedented influence over our place in the world. Social media technology holds some of the biggest potential for creating tectonic shifts in how we operate, and the overall open-ended promise of technology gives us a great shot at creating the systems for change. Technology isn't a magic bullet for solving the world's problems, but it's certainly a spark to the fastest fuse to explode our notions of power that the world has seen in a thousand years. In this book, I hope to show you how to light that fuse.

It hasn't been easy to thrive in our culture for the last hundred years or so. We've become ever more obsessed with consumption and power. Our corporate mass media and politicians have been treating us as faceless members of large demographics with open wallets, and less as individuals within communities, leading us down dark paths of apathy and isolation. We've had little room for recourse and little chance to connect to one another.

All of that's changing, and rapidly. People are using social technologies to find and connect. A study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project in November 2009 showed that people who have Internet access and/or a mobile phone were much more likely to have bigger, more diverse discussion networks, for example. When we connect and share our lives with one another, both in the digital space and in the physical space, we create bonds of trust and empathy that lead us away from that apathy that's glazed over our eyeballs for at least a century. Our lives matter: What we believe and which truths we hold to be self-evident matter.

Here's the thing: I truly believe that through social networking, we can influence the way these conversations affect how change happens. As more conversations are taking place in public, we can represent ourselves. We can break stereotypes. We can transform our new connections into social change.

An Abundance of Attention

Just as we need to develop new skills to think about the volume of information we're receiving, so too do we need new skills for managing our attention span. Because of the market structure of mass communications, we often think of our attention in terms of economics; in recent years, there's been lots of talk in media and technology circles about the attention economy. If you're new to the term, here's the basic idea: Attention is scarce, meaning it's a finite commodity that can be gathered and exhausted. Using economics as a model, we have to choose where we "spend" our attention, and those seeking to gain our attention have to use market-based tactics--aka "marketing"! aha!--to win the privilege of our spending our attention on them.

As we enter a more social, and perhaps more holistic, way of interacting with the world around us, squeezing our attention span in this kind of transaction-based, market model is turning out to be fraught with problems. Our attention span, as it turns out, is not in the limited supply that marketers would have us believe.

Market models and economies are attractive to us as a culture because we're so familiar with transaction-based economies. It's hard for us to think about commodities in any other way, because we're so focused on a tit-for-tat system as a measuring stick for fairness in labor, time, and services.

When we apply transactions to how traditional media work (think: one-directional, few-to-many broadcast messages), it's easy to see how we ended up with today's dismal state of affairs: reality TV, infotainment news, etc. If, as a producer of content in a market-based system, I need to get the most bang for my buck out of each "transaction," I'm going to create something that will gain the most attention. I'll have to yell the loudest, create the most spectacle. It's not worth my time or money to create niche content that will draw in specific kinds of audiences; partly because this is one-directional and I have all the control, I can blast people with content and hope for the best out of that transactional moment, when I print an article or air a show. The more outrageous that content is, the better chance I have of at least catching people's eye for a moment--take advantage of humanity's rubbernecking instinct.

How the transactional moment works is changing rapidly, thanks to social networks. First, the moment is more bidirectional (or even multidirectional) than ever. We're having conversations with one another, so the transaction is not just about my producing content and your consuming it. It's about how we interact with what gets put out there and how that content changes once we start interacting with it. This moment in social and technological development is also different because it's not a few-to-many model; it's a many-to-many model. Applying an economic analysis to attention now becomes messy.

We have to reframe our interactions with one another--we shouldn't be thinking about trying to "pay attention" to everything that comes our way and then running out of attention to pay. We need to make the world around us a stream or flow of information, and dip in and out of that flow as necessary or desired. Attention, in this model, isn't a scarce commodity; it's an unending stream that weaves in and out of other streams. As web visionary Stowe Boyd argues,

The answer is not becoming obsessed with attention as a limited resource to be husbanded, or thinking of our cognition as a laser beam to be pointed at only at what is important.

We need to unfocus, to rely more on the network or tribe to surface things of importance, and remain open to new opportunities: these are potentially more important than the work on the desk. Don't sharpen the knife too much.

Since attention isn't composed of chunks that accumulate and are doled out in this way of thinking, it's fairly useless to consider the system a finite economy. Those who yell the loudest and make the biggest fools of themselves will become less important as our notions of celebrity also change--having higher numbers of viewers or followers or fans doesn't equal influence and fame. Or, at least it doesn't have to. If we can turn around our thinking, away from the style of mass media that has only served to alienate us from one another and has produced lowest-common-denominator content, and toward a more holistic, ecosystem-like view in which relationships to and relevancy of content matter, then attention's scarcity also begins to disappear.

Once scarcity is removed from the model, market economics doesn't apply to it. You're not competing for others' attention; you're creating sustainable relationships across which content flows, many ways. What happens as a result of those relationships might be quantifiable in some way, but how we choose to measure them absolutely must become more nuanced than units of product sold, page views/uniques, or number of followers/fans gained. This is another key point missing from many of the conversations about social media's impact: We are at a critical cultural juncture where it is up to us to experiment and ultimately define how things work in the ecosystem.

Deanna Zandt is a media technologist and the author of the new book, Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking. She is a contributing editor at AlterNet, and can be found on Twitter at @randomdeanna. Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.
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