Monday, April 09, 2012

Preference Setting (Part 1)

About a year ago I wrote a post entitled “20 Reasons Not to Date a Digital Strategist”. It was just a bit of fun, but since April that entry has had almost 10,000 views and travelled from the UK to North America, Canada, Australia and most of Western Europe. Clearly I was not alone in my exasperation - and amusement - at the undefined rules of engagement for social media when it came to real life relationships.  And, while corporations busily debate the financial value of a “like”, it seems regular people everywhere are trying to figure out its emotional value.

Claiming expertise in the management of connections and engagement online is a lucrative career choice these days - ensuring brands maintain consistent, rewarding relationships with their customers. Yet, there exist no guidelines (official or otherwise) for managing personal relationships across so many platforms. Recently Mashable reported that 1 in 10 people playing the Scrabble-esque word game Words with Friends has directly led to a "hook up". While Facebook is currently cited in one third of all UK divorces. For perhaps the first time in human history branded platforms - and the behaviour they nurture, encourage and, ultimately, manipulate for their own commercial ends - are affecting our interpersonal relationships. Ahead of Facebook's IPO, Zuckerberg even went so far as to admit wanting to actively "rewire" people and they way they form connections!

Social media brands nurture a behaviour that revolves around constant self-refinement. Their business models rely on our belief that we are only as interesting as our last post, or as popular as the number of followers we have. So much so that it's easy to get caught up in the expectation to continuously like, follow, friend, favourite, re-pin, and re-tweet. Russell M Davies said recently that social media is “networking for shy people”. Safely adhering to the rules of a predetermined user experience, it's easy just to pick out and present our best sides, our wittiest comments and our coolest links. But Facebook, Twitter and the like are all engines by which to curate ourselves, and it is these curated selves - not our real selves - with which we are now forming new, online relationships.

But what happens to the online, curated self in the real world, when the shy people have to meet up offline? Coping with the reconciliation of avatar to human being becomes a daunting, even stressful, prospect. Are we ever going to be as interesting, glamorous or funny? What happens if the connection formed online disappears offline? Suddenly, the potential for traversing an emotional minefield grows vast. Gone are the days when you could yank your phone line out the wall - 80’s movie style - and cry into your tie-dye leggings til you felt better. Now - connected across multiple platforms - you’re on the Internet, they’re on the Internet and, without really wanting to, you know each other’s every thought and move. The complex machine learning and recommendation engines behind Facebook and Google were designed for the group hug of the open web, not the late-night Internet-loitering individual.

So, I guess that number 21 on the list of reasons not to date a digital strategist is that we're going to over think this situation. The gender divide, the 'Digital Native' generation, and taking existing, real world relationships online are all part of it, and aspects which call for separate consideration. As brands and technological innovation impact on how we build interpersonal relationships, the opportunity for us to define the rules of engagement becomes greater yet harder. Without taking the backwards step of disconnecting altogether, we must learn to live our real lives whilst simultaneously plugged into an online world.

Photos via Ida Rhoda, Howard Grey, Henri Lartigue

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