The Social Media (lack of a) Bubble PT1 : Personal Connections

by Ashok Nayar

Umair Haque, a brilliant Economist from London who runs his own shop, Havas Media Lab, recently wrote an article for Harvard Business Review titled “The Social Media Bubble”. He likens what he thinks are “low quality connections” that we encounter in social media to the subprime mortgage market–“linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships”.

Now while I generally do agree with Umair’s hypotheses, I do have to disagree with him here.  This is Part 1 of my rebuttal, the second one refuting his argument against social media marketing.

Nominally, you have a lot more relationships — but in reality, few, if any, are actually valuable. Just as currency inflation debases money, so social inflation debases relationships. The very word “relationship” is being cheapened. It used to mean someone you could count on. Today, it means someone you can swap bits with.

Thin relationships are the illusion of real relationships. Real relationships are patterns of mutual investment. I invest in you, you invest in me. Parents, kids, spouses — all are multiple digit investments, of time, money, knowledge, and attention. The “relationships” at the heart of the social bubble aren’t real because they’re not marked by mutual investment . At most, they’re marked by a tiny chunk of information or attention here or there.

I think Umair misses the point of social media.  For simplicity, let’s use Facebook as the standard.  Facebook is effectively a very, very, efficient networking tool.  And by that I mean it is essentially a rolodex that has much more than your name and number listed.  And that’s okay.  Because what Umair doesn’t realize is that for the youth, who meet people everywhere, Facebook allows us to stay in touch with those people who may be of some value in some capacity later on.  Whether it be for a restaurant recommendation in a foreign town, some advice on a new business idea where that “friend” is a domain expert, or simply to find a new apartment. Social Media provides connections and a way to manage those connections without any underlying obligation.

While it is true that most people only have so many relationships, and the majority of their connections consist of acquaintances (I think I remember reading somewhere that a human can only have something like 5 or 6 meaningful relationships based on the time it takes to invest into a meaningful relationship), the point of keeping in touch with those acquaintances can be likened to grabbing a business card at a conference.  You don’t know that you’ll ever need to contact that person, but if you do, or they do you, there’s already some basis of trust installed, even if it’s that you just met them for an hour over drinks.  Furthermore, I would argue that the lack of privacy, which is these days a good talking point, often leads to a deeper trust being built between both parties.  The simple fact that I can, if I want (and I don’t encourage social media stalking lol), follow X person’s digital life through her pictures or her status updates and that X person can follow mine, there is a mutual underlying trust that’s built by the framework of Facebook itself.  I’m allowing that person into my life simply by friending them, and vice versa.  The comfort level of which varies from person to person of course, but as we delve and embrace social media even more, it’s almost a sort of Pavlovian type of conditioning that we encounter in accepting these new types of interactions.  And that’s also okay.

Embracing and accepting these new changes in society is part of progression.  Interactions will be different online, and translating our physical world to the digital world is still a new idea.  But if we don’t accept the natural progression of things, and accept the way the market reacts to these new interactions, then we will force a bubble on ourselves that the market was not ready for.