Stop Worrying, Be Networked

Net I used to like Steve Heimoff because he was willing to listen to or carefully read a pitch I'd throw his way about a client. Then I started to like him more because he seemed to have a similar appreciation for wine styles as me. These days I still like him for these reasons. But like him even more because he makes me think harder about my assumptions and understandings of my business and world, even when he's wrong.

Take for example Steve's recent blog post on "Backlash Against Social Media Gathers Steam" in which he appears to agree with the view that all this networking and socializing through our various gadgets is "intruding into the social contract" and adheres to the notion that social media is "not only not bringing us closer and making us better, more dexterous communicators, but in fact is achieving exactly the opposite."

First, let's stop worrying that communicating via social networks, email, text and blog comments is in anyway isolating us from the benefits of real human contact and communication. One need not be looking another person in the eye, no where they live or actually belong to the same geographic community of another person to communicate with them intimately and effectively.

It might be hard, but imagine the person living before cars were commonplace and who happened to be born into a mid-sized town of 15,000. Now imagine they have an interest in ballet, paper airplanes or wine. The only way they had of sharing and communicating these interests with anyone else was the lonely act of reading a specialty magazine published monthly, traveling long distances to a place where groups of ballet aficionados or wine lovers or paper airplane enthusiasts could be found, or being content to socialize with the few people in town who might share these interests but were just as likely to be loathsome folks who picked their noses and smelled of too much Aramis.

Things have changed.

Today, you need not put up with unbearable personalities or a stinky, Aramis-wearers in order to discuss the finer points of terroir or the benefits of decanting a young wine. Today, online social forums like Facebooks or wine discussion boards and new communication tools like text messaging allow you to indulge your latest wine epiphany anytime, anywhere. That's called progress.

One of Steve's and many other people's concerns too is that all this remote communicating is bad for communal living: "where ten years ago patrons [of cafes] might have been debating about politics,
gossiping, or playing chess, today they’re absorbed in their own little
worlds. They might as well be on the Space Shuttle as in a crowded room
with other human beings."

This is something that Steve and others are just going to have to get over. These folks still are debating politics, gossiping, playing chess and even discussing wine, but they just aren't doing it with their neighbor at the next table. They are doing this with other, like-minded, likely friendly people and possibly even close friends who don't happen to be currently exposed to the same acoustic "Coffee House" music droning over the speakers that you and your laptop-consumed neighbor at the next table must listen too, as though any hit from the 80s and 70s can be turned into an acoustic version successfully. (Are earplugs and an iPod too anti-social for the local coffee shop?)

And let's not forget the benefits of social networking to the facilitation of getting together face-to-face. If there was ever a better set of tools than Facebook, Twitter, discussion boards, texts and email for getting like-minded people to show up in the same place at the same time, I'm not aware of it. Everyday people are using devises and networks to gather their "friends" and even their FRIENDS in a real setting to taste wine, talk about wine, drink too much wine and say silly things about wine after drinking too much of it.

Steve and others believe there is a backlash underway against social media. If that backlash is against folks who carelessly and selfishly ignore propriety by talking too loud into their phones on an elevator or in a gym, something at which Steve rightfully takes offense, then consider me part of the backlash. But that's not a backlash against social media. It's a backlash against buffoonery. And I'm all for it.

Steve quotes and agrees with Jason Lanier's observation, “I know quite a few people, most of them young adults, who are
proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on
Facebook. Obviously, their statements can be true only if the idea of
friendship is diminished.”

This is incorrectly stated. The last sentence should read: "Obviously their statements can be true only if the word 'friendship' has been given a secondary meaning that only has partial relationship to it's original meaning."

Anyone who believes the way the word "Friend" is used on Facebook is the same as the way it is used when you describe that person who you tell your fears and secrets to in confidence just doesn't understand the value of co-opting words for purposes other than which those words were originally designed to function. It's a bit like believing that Right Wing Talk show hosts really believe President Obama is a reincarnation of Eugene Debs when they call him a "socialist", rather understanding the reality: They have used the word "socialist" to mean "I hate that motherf*cker".

So, to those who fear that social networking and socializing via networked computers may be dissolving the real and permanent kinds of bonds that arise between humans and within communities that only comes when you look a person in the eye, I say…calm down. What you are really witnessing is the rise of real, meaningful, important and even intimate communities based not on geography or proximity, but on common interest and common ideals. And believe it or not, these communities build bonds between their members. Those bonds, in some cases, result in friendships. Some result in opening bottles of wine with people that don't smell of an Aramis bath.

18 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - February 10, 2010

    But Tom, “the value of co-opting words…”
    Social media arguments aside, are you saying that words matter only in so far as they can be used to distort their meaning to serve some unattached purpose?

  2. Tom Wark - February 10, 2010

    Words matter for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that they are the vehicle through which we express our complex mental functions. They can be used for any number of purposes and in a number of ways. One way they can be used is to attempt to give blessing to an action (accumulating lists of similarly minded people) by co-opting ideas and associations associated with words.

  3. Charlie Olken - February 10, 2010

    One of the things that has confused me in all of these discussions of social media is that none of this seems new to me. As reluctant as I am to show my age, I simply have to point out, and thus agree with Tom W., that these kinds of conversations have been going on for as long as there have been remote ways to interact.
    Two hundred years ago, it was through letters and learned journals. Long debates occurred in newspapers and magazines where the readers debated not only with the writers of those journals but with each other as well. And letters, you know, the ones that were written on paper (surely you remember paper) were also part of the fabric of social media.
    I remember when the mail was delivered twice a day. I remember when we had to subscribe to morning and evening newspapers to stay informed. Remote social interaction is not new. It has just changed form.
    Think about how the use of the telephone has changed in my lifetime. Back in the 60s, when I was in grad school here in CA, and my folks lived in Boston, we used to talk once every two weeks for about ten minutes at a cost of about $15 per call. Think about that. We spent $30 a month in long distance calls, which today would be the equivalent of spending several hundred dollars. Coffee really was a dime, a pitcher of beer at our grad sch. hangout was a buck.
    Today, the phone is practically free as a means of talking and I have talked for hours to my family when the occasion arises. Sometimes we talk several times a day and sometimes every two weeks, but we can and do talk a lot more frequently.
    So, along comes Al Gore and he invents the Internet. The wine bulletin boards of 15 years ago and maybe more created wine communities. I have tasted with folks I met on AOL in several parts of the country. Same for my sporting interests–which, because I am soccer fan, includes meeting several English fans on my trips there.
    The communties in places like West Coast Wine Network and Wine Lovers Discussion Group predate the communities that have sprung up in the comments sections of blogs and other places.
    I guess I do not get Steve’s angst about much of this. But, he is right about the computer replacing a lot of face to face communication. Whether that is good or bad, it is a fact of life. One of my favorite PR persons, other than Mr. W., is a somewhat shy person. She did her job, got press releases out, had a pretty good network of friends but was not, as my wife would say, “a chatty Cathy”. Now I see her on Twitter posting some new item every five minutes. I wonder at times like that what happened to my friend. Safety in distance and inanity?? But, she is far better for it, whatever the reason and analysis of it.
    Tom W. certainly strikes a chord with me when he says not to worry. I have seen it all before, and even though it is new and allows folks to act differently, I suspect that, in the long run, we are all the same, and the only excpetion is that we can communicate more broadly and quickly than we used to be able to do. On the whole, that is not a bad thing.

  4. Al Hernandez - February 10, 2010

    Mostly, I agree with you. However, I think that the case can be made for Steve’s point of view. As recently as this weekend, I witnessed two people having dinner on a first date. (I only know this because they sat me at the table right next to them.) I observed them tweeting and facebooking comments about the restaurant, food and wine they had versus talking to each other and having a true social interaction. Some of my staff members had a Superbowl party this weekend. A percentage of them were tweeting and facebooking instead of talking to the people at the party. The basic social interaction is changing and it seems to be acceptable to text, tweet, update facebook instead of interact with people in the same room. The bottom line: I believe there truth is somewhere in the middle.

  5. Ron Washam, HMW - February 10, 2010

    I didn’t see the word “fear” in any of Steve’s comments. No one is afraid of Twitter or Facebook any more than Charlie was afraid of the phone. Which he is if I’m calling, but otherwise not. There’s no “fear” of change in any of this, not that I can tell. Of course, since we’re not having a face-to-face converstaion and are relying on the Internet to communicate, it’s hard to know, isn’t it?
    The excerpt in “Harper’s” (remember magazines?) in the February 2010 issue, which I emailed to Steve because I knew it would interest him, is much more than a condemnation of Social Media. Condemning Social Media is, obviously, a fool’s game. Hey, I’m a fool, but I know enough to choose my battles wisely. There’s not a marketing person on the planet right now who would admit there is anything wrong with Social Media–that’s how you know there must be.
    Anyhow, Lanier’s article, which is dense and fascinating and smart, makes lots of points about our relationship to machines and Social Media. He does NOT say it’s wrong or something to be afraid of. He simply makes one think about our relationship to Facebook and Twitter and Social Media. He says, for example, “People degrade themselves all the time in order to make machines seem smart. Before the 2008 stock-market crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before the bank made bad loans; we ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm.” He gives many examples of how we do this.
    Your recasting of the author’s quote about “Friends” on Facebook is basically proving his point, Tom. Here is his answer to what you stated:
    “But let’s suppose you disagree that the idea of friendship is being reduced. Even then one must remember that the customers of social networks are not the members of those networks. The real customer is the advertiser of the future, but this creature has yet to appear in any significant way. The whole artifice, the whole idea of fake friendship, is just bait laid by the cloud lords to lure hypothetical advertisers–we might call them messianic advertisers–who could someday show up.”
    It hardly mattters, but I don’t text, Facebook, Tweet, or even own a cellphone. Not afraid of any of them. I actually know who my friends are.

  6. Joe - February 10, 2010

    Pros and cons. Great points by you, Tom, but also in the comment field.
    Between Tom and Charlie, I was ready to dismiss any attempt at dissent. However, Al makes a great point. I think we need to accept- even embrace- the social network. While I haven’t met winemakers in Italy in person, I’ve been able to communicate with them in a way I would’ve never otherwise. If Steve Heimoff is insinuating that we all need to talk over a game of checkers on top of the pickle barrel at the local 5-and-dime, then he’s out of touch.
    However, I think Steve and Al are perhaps making the more valid point that we need to be conscious of the “rules of society” in public. Like a squawker on a cellphone, a person constantly tweeting, emailing, what-have-you in the middle of a face-to-face is pretty rude.

  7. Tom Wark - February 10, 2010

    A squawker on a telephone would have been out of line in 1960. And a person sitting at a dinner table with another person who is tweeting instead of interacting (assuming it’s not ok with their dinner partner) would be as rude as simply eating and ignoring them. These are not new violations of the social code that social networking and new tools for communication have created.
    I’ve sat at tables with friends and post pics on FACEBOOK. But it was done with the other person knowing I was doing it and approving. As with other things, if I offend, I assume I will lose the interest and respect of the person I offend.
    So, yes, Steve and others are making this argument. It’s just not an argument that has much to do with the rise of social networking and virtual communities.

  8. Ed - February 10, 2010

    Very nice response, Tom.
    I know who my friends are but choose to not limit myself to meeting many more people who share my interests due to geography or (lack of) technology. It has afforded me many more opportunities that wouldn’t have been created otherwise and many of these connections have become friends in the very original definition of the word.
    This “backlash” may be more about the people using the technology than the technologies themselves. But, why should this be any different? See other backlashes about guns, fast cars, alcohol sales on Sundays, etc. But if this country can’t teach people how to drive cars effectively and safely, do we have any hope they can learn how to be responsible when using their social technologies at the dinner table? I just don’t let it bother me.

  9. Joe - February 10, 2010

    Yep, Tom. I think we’re on the same page.
    To further the point, take Ed, for example. Without social networking, I would’ve probably never met the guy. Both wine lovers, bloggers, sports fans in the same city. By connecting first via twitter, etc., that led to real, in-person interaction. Nothing anti-social about that.

  10. Samantha - February 10, 2010

    I am having dinner this evening with a fellow wine lover from Colorado, a woman I might never have met had it not been for my blog. Very cool person that I now call a friend, oh and we made plans for dinner on facebook.
    I read the post that Tom is talking about here and the same thought were running through my mind all morning, “the horse is dead already Steve…leave the poor beast alone”. Not to mention it sounds as if the point that the author was making was either lost or twisted to suit what is beginning to be a very tired message. Look, I read Steve every day and think he makes some valid points but this, this is just starting to chafe….

  11. Tish - February 11, 2010

    Let’s be sure to separate social media from interpersonal rudeness. The latter — embodied by people lost in their PDAs, etc. — deserves backlash. And sensible people (even my kids, who have about 800 “friend” each on Facebook) understand that friends are different from computer-network contacts.
    Social media, however, which continues to be redefined practically monthly, is no more or less than mass-scale, warp-speed communication. It does not preclude other forms of communication; and as Charlie points out, it is not so different from bulletin boards of the 20th century.
    What I see happening is simply enhanced power of communication via FB, twitter, blogs, live-streaming forums, e-communities. The power to reach — and interact with — far more people on a meaningful level than I could 15, 10 or even 5 years ago is what social media is about. The rewards are both professional and personal (like Samantha, social media has enabled me to connect to new friends in unexpected ways).
    What we all have still not yet figured out is how the “new” media works with traditional media. (It is pretty hilarious that it is Steve Heimoff trashing the new; his profile as a wine pundit these days stems far more from blogging than print).
    I think one of the hardest things for those of us who started when meaningful communication was by definition typeset is dealing with the ease and speed by which news, ideas and stories travel and then become specks in the rearview mirror. Will we remember this post next week… next month? Meanwhile, we are subconsciously (at least) richer for this discussion, which ironically was based on a book that few of us will acutally read, but which we are able to discuss constructively thanks to… social media.

  12. 1WineDude - February 11, 2010

    “messianic advertisers–who could someday show up”??
    The article actually concludes that? Man, that’s a **huge** cop-out!
    The authors need to watch the videos here:
    and then tell us that the groups formed around those social media networks are totally at the whim of invisible advertisers who have yet to transform. I mean, I’m as skeptical as the next guy but one of those social net groups actually influenced the behavior of the U.S. President, and if that’s not some power than I don’t know what power is…

  13. Cesar - February 11, 2010

    I didn’t think Heimoff was “trashing the new”; and if some people are “chafing” because Steve brings up a relevant and serious dialog I don’t feel the problem is with the discussion. I agree with the articles arguments but think Steve’s conclusion is off target. The question is important and worth the dialog and to say “Stop worrying,be networked” is like saying “Shut up, Drink the Kool-Aid.”

  14. Margie Tosch - February 11, 2010

    I agree with most of what was said. Manners are manners, and people can use them or disregard them online or in person. It is progress and the push back is the same as it has been regarding almost all technological progress, the phone, TV, Internet, etc. Anything can be abused; that doesn’t make the technology being abused a bad thing.

  15. Charlie Olken - February 11, 2010

    Every advance has its plusses and minuses. We no longer have Town Criers–and you can bet that the Town Crier union is rightfully pissed off about it. We no longer have Cracker Barrels in general stores or hot stoves in winter that people sit around.
    Tish made the point that we communicate at warp speed, which, is not all that different from fifteen years ago. I used to have five IMs going with my wine buddies on AOL plus my soccer buddies. I even had an IM wine pal, whose sports book I was totally unaware I had been using a major reference source for years.
    So, even though I am old dog, I don’t see all this as totally new tricks–more like variatiions on a theme.
    But here is what I do not like. As Maggie Tosch said, manners are manners–and, the corollary of that is that bad manners are bad manners. Bad manners did not start with social media, but there is a question to be explored. Do some parts of social media result in bad manners? The easy answer to that is “yes”, and some of that is what Heimoff was getting at.
    And there is a second question that I think this discussion ignores, and that is, do some kinds of interaction patterns become harmful to the functioning of some people in society? Here again, the answer is yes.
    In both cases, there is no universal, one size fits all answer, and we do not know if there is damage in the loss of the Town Crier system or the loss of newspapers as a focus in coffee houses. But the daughter of my close friend who comes home from her fancy job and sits in her room all night online with someone or something has substituted her bedroom and her computer for the face-to-face world.
    I see that as a concern, and just as my son limits the amount of TV his kids can watch, so too should he and others be at least a little concerned about the amount of isolated computer time that goes on around them.
    Maybe it is just me, but I agree with the cafe owner who got tired of seeing an entire room full of people with their noses perpetually buried in their computers.

  16. The Wine Mule - February 14, 2010

    Anybody remember John Perry Barlow, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation? Back in the ’90s, he was preaching the New Connectivity, back when some of us were still figuring out what browsers were. Here’s a quote of his that seems somehow relevant to the discussion:
    “A five-minute conversation with the right person can be more enlightening than five hours online. The most powerful search engines out there are other people. You can begin a fruitful exchange on the Net, but if you want a more powerful relationship, you’ll need to climb up to the greater bandwidth of a face-to-face meeting.”
    I think that’s what makes some of us so uncomfortable with social networking: While we’re busy hailing Twitter, let’s remember that while it may increase the quantity of our contacts, it will not necessarily increase their quality.

  17. Steve Heimoff - March 13, 2010

    Tom, my thoughts about many things these days tend to vary from moment to moment. That includes social media. I think it’s premature to arrive at conclusions about almost anything anymore, what with events spinning out of control. I agree that there’s a difference between an analysis of the role of social media in communication, versus boorish behavior. Nobody’s in favor of the latter. I fully understand the importance of the former. I use and love Facebook. I understand the importance of twitter in, for example, reporting from the streets of Tehran or (today as I write) having the White House tweet an important announcement. I am not a social media basher, as some think. All I have done is to wonder how social media is supposed to help wineries sell wine! And after all this debate, I still don’t know!

  18. security cameras - March 22, 2010

    When we networked with people our contacts spread in a large area. And it will always help us in anyway…

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