Thursday, September 10, 2009

Social Media: The New Humanism?

This morning I briefly insinuated myself into a Twitter discussion between Marsha Collier and Chris Brogan, co-author with Julien Smith of the best seller about social media, "Trust Agents."

The topic was a story about a lame video posted on YouTube to address concerns by many irate users on social sites about the messaging shortcomings of AT&T's network for the iPhone.

The video featured a geek called "Seth the Blogger" (not to be confused with Joe the Plumber) using charts and graphs to explain the technical problems AT&T faces in trying to implement messaging properly for the iPhone.

Brogan and Collier discussed how ineffective this approach is at a time of social media, and Collier suggested actually responding substantively to issues raised on the social sites and demonstrating that the company is really listening as a more viable response.

Brogan, an evangelist for social media, has written often about how suspicious people are of corporations and institutions, so that the more influential people on the web, in social media, are dubbed "Trust Agents". They come by this status not because they are CEO's or spokespeople but because their actions, over time, have demonstrated competence, credibility and compassion in terms of sharing information and building relationships with others (through blogs and "tweets" and so on).

More recently Brogan recommended "Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back" by Douglas Rushkoff as a particularly powerful description of why social media is growing as a response to the pursuit of profit at the cost of humanity. ("A shrill condemnation of how corporate culture has disconnected human beings from each other.")

If you watched President Obama's speech on health care last night, perhaps you were particularly struck, as I was, by his description of frank testimony by an executive for a health insurance company in which he admitted that depriving people of coverage was a policy in line with what Wall Street demanded for the sake of shareholders, in spite of the fact that people were dying and suffering.

This is another blatant example of the corporate trend in customer "disservice" that is perhaps exemplified by the inability in many cases to call a company on the phone and talk to a human, and if one does, the human is reading a script and sounds like a robot.

To me, the growth of social media is, as Brogan and Collier also point out, a movement in opposition to this trend, to reimpose real and tangible human values over those of abstractions like profit and financial gain.

Wikipedia defines "Humanism" as "a perspective common to a wide range of ethical stances that attaches importance to human dignity, concerns, and capabilities, particularly rationality. Although the word has many senses, its meaning comes into focus when contrasted to the supernatural or to appeals to authority."

In my lifetime the distrust of authority has grown from a soft whisper to a bellowing roar as we have seen the growth of multi-national corporations and the pervasive power of influence in Washington.

While many might still scoff at Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social sites, the fact is that their rapid growth speaks to the need for people to locate and connect with similar sensibilities both for their own nourishment and sanity, and also to counteract the megalithic powers that threaten to snuff out humanistic values.

When United Airlines broke a musician's guitar and ignored him, his video on YouTube went viral, and suddenly he had power as an individual and the company had to take note and respond.

In this way the democratic aspect of social media is in complete harmony with American values of fairness and individual responsibility and autonomy.

Corporations and governments are certainly not all or intrinsically bad; many of our blessings would not exist without them. But we must not lose sight of the fact that these institutions are frequently run at cross purposes to the needs of many of our citizens.

There was a time when money represented the value inherent in tangible labor, goods or services. Now it has become a blip on a computer screen and an abstraction so that the recent prosperity came at the expense of huge debts amassed by financial wizards with no direct relationship to actual labor, goods or services. Instead financial instruments which leveraged debt at ratios as high as 40:1 on the dollar have made a few wealthy and many destitute.

Some like the Dalai Lama have suggested that this economic crisis was a wake-up call for humanity to reassess its most basic values.

And Social media is in many ways a natural response to these inequities, both in terms of the need for anyone and everyone to be heard and listened to, and also to reclaim the disproportionate power of institutions that abuse their might.

We have seen even more dramatic evidence of the power of social media to inspire and motivate disenfranchised people in places like Iran. The fact is that human needs trump abstractions like a balance sheet, and will be recognized, one way or another. It has become a global phenomenon.

Of course some people will use their own concept of humanism to assert their views over others, but what social media has shown (and Brogan's term is "social capital") is that people inherently recognize truth and decency over time, so that those with influence on the Internet generally earn it.

Human ingenuity has given birth to a new global nervous system, the Internet, through which humanity may be coming to its senses--with social media leading the way to a new recognition and reevaluation of priorities--so that people and decency matter more than power and greed, as we connect with one another in networks of community and renewed understanding.

The alternative is not pretty.

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