Is Social Media The Ultimate Buzz Kill?

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cell phone concert

Driving home the other day, I was fascinated by an NPR story on the use of cell phones to share pictures at concerts.

While a number of concert-goers phoned in to say how annoying it was to see thousands of small blue screens held overhead and people screaming into cellphones during the show, that wasn’t the real issue.

Turns out, it was the bands who were complaining, but not about what you think…

It wasn’t about stealing footage or intellectual property protection. Or, even putting images and movies of the concert immediately up on YouTube the moment the cell-phone bandit got home. The complaint ran much deeper than that.

And, it has it’s corollary in the explosion of social media.

Instead, the complaint was about the impact of live photo and video journaling on your ability to be present in the moment, drink in the juicy energy and participate fully in the extraordinary “collective conciousness” that infuses the crowd swaying, singing and connecting with a common experience.

It wasn’t a money thing for the bands, but a consciousness thing. As long as people were focused on “documenting” the experience, they couldn’t be fully “in” the experience.

I wonder if a similar thing is happening the proliferation of micro-messaging?

Millions of people now live-journal nearly every happening, thought and moment in their lives on Twitter, Plurk, Friendfeed, Socialthing and dozens of other services. So much so that I know a number of folks who literally rush to the computer of cell phone the seconds something remotely interesting begins to happen, out of an almost addictive need to report what’s going down.

Question is, is this activity turning us more into journalists of our own lives and less into participants?

When we tweet everything we are experiencing in a conversation, concert or gathering of likeminded people, does the very activity of tweeting somehow take away from our ability to enjoy the bigger activity?

Does it diminish our ability to be fully present in a way that lessens the power, the value, the enduring impact of the live experience?

Does it stop the core conversation about which we’re reporting from going to the next level?

Does it place documenting over experiencing?

This is what’s on my mind today.

As always, let’s discuss…

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51 responses

51 responses to “Is Social Media The Ultimate Buzz Kill?”

  1. rhea says:

    Hi, Jonathan, I do think all the mediated experiences we have now in life are going to catch up with us. We will realize we are witnessing life instead of participating in it. The pendulum will swing back as soon as everyone gets fed up with the unreality of it all. Of course, I am speaking as a just-turned 50-year-old who grew up without all this stuff.

  2. Tyler says:

    I actually have noticed that I am more intune with experiences because I’m looking for those opportunities. Instead of floating through life, I’ve been looking for opportunities to share that might be interesting to me/others later. Plus I feel more connected to my in-laws who live across the country as I share these experiences with them in real time.

  3. It’s very difficult these days to be present. Sometimes I find myself with others thinking about how I will write about it and I know it does diminish the experience in certain cases. For example I had an actual door-to-door salesman come to my house and the whole time the guy was talking all I was thinking about was writing about his visit. I think I actually took a picture of him. I try to be better about it with my family but am always sure to have a camera with me these days. If I had the money I’m sure I’d be using an N95. I’m not a big tweeter and more of a chat plurker, but I like to document with my camera for my blog. My husband reminds me to celebrate the present and participate — I try and also include my camera. My friend Meg wrote this and I echo her sentiments about piecing together memories. I’m so thankful to my father and my grandfather before him for always their “documentalisting”.

  4. I certainly think this happens. I know I used to photograph a lot, but stopped when I found it made me think about my surroundings (when traveling) in the box of the camera. Similarly, I’m sure people think ‘in the box’ of – can I blog this?

    But on the other hand – this is so new, we can’t know yet what the long term consequences are. Did you know television viewing is going down? I’d rather people blog about their lives obsessively (or twitter or whatever), than that they become/stay television junky’s…

  5. […] Go to the author’s original blog: Is Social Media The Ultimate Buzz Kill? […]

  6. Yes, I’ll be honest. I started ‘Twittering’ because it was something you recommended. But I found that though it was really neat, it did interrupt the flow of my day. Maybe a month isn’t long enough, but I stopped using it.

  7. I think you’ve hit Hunter S. Thompson’s definition of Gonzo bang on the nail there. True Gonzo was becoming the story, the actor, the director, the writer, and the producer – all of these things rolled into one and reporting it on the fly without editing.
    I embrace blogging and micro-blogging for making this possible to every one of us. I’m sure Dr. Thompson would’ve embraced it too. Imagine if he’d been set loose in Vegas with a PDA and a Twitter/ Plurk account.
    Great stuff, Johnathan.

  8. Lewis Green says:

    Excellent question? I attended a rock concert just two weeks ago, and believe cell phones are like second-hand smoke. Not only are those using them avoiding the experience and not fully participating, they are diverting the attention of those of us trying to live in the moment.

    What I find so interesting with micro-blogging, like cell phones, is how self-centered it can be. Trying to engage someone in a conversation is sometimes akin to banging repeatedly into a brick wall.

    Look, social media is like all other forms of communications. If we use it to indulge our egos, we miss the experience. If we use it to reach out, we enrich our lives.

  9. Sarah Cooper says:

    I noticed this pretty soon after I got into Twitter. And, naturally, I twittered about it:

    I’m always suspicious of people who twitter to say they’re having a great time. I’m not sure you can be truly enjoying yourself if your face down on your iPhone. And then there’s that new site (can’t remember the name) that let’s you twitter/blog all those special moments with your children. On the one hand it’s nice to have that document of the precise moment the baby started talking or rolled over on their own, on the other hand, why can’t we just enjoy it?

  10. People are going to have to change they way the do business, thanks to SM. Look at Radiohead, they put up an album online that was free to download! They asked people to donate $ if they wanted and received over $15 per download.

  11. S. says:

    Just a comment about your content: I have been subscribing for quite a while now because when I stumbled upon you I was impressed by some original thinking. However, I was about to unsubscribe from your RSS feed because recently you seem to have fallen into the trap of congratulating blogger friends and linking to them etc. I know this helps build traffic – the holy grail of blogging, but this tactic erodes credibility so much. I have removed quite a few feeds just because of it.

    Thankfully you have rediscovered some thought leadership in your last few posts and I now look forward to your next installment.

  12. Hi Jonathan,
    In the context of your post, when using a cellphone to record and share a moment, many times it enhances the experience.

    When at a wine expo, recording interviews with vendors allowed me to have deeper conversations with them.

    When in New Hampshire for the Democratic Primary, having the camera allowed me to talk to presidential candidate Duncan Hunter.

    When at a Barack Obama rally and streaming live with Qik from a cellphone, viewers could text chat feedback to me while I was streaming …

    Some times the cell phone video camera can be used as a tool to bring people together…

    Some times I shut it off and enjoy an unmediated experience.

    Works both ways.

  13. Rick Wolff says:

    It is the pre-Internet instinct of a photographer who wants, to whatever extent, to capture some token of a special moment that’s worth re-living. The ability to share in real time has come along with the new technology. While I appreciate being thought of at that moment, I don’t think the visual cues will work for me, because I’m not there.

  14. Lisa Newton says:

    Events in life should be conversation starters, not conversation dominators, ie, listening is a major part of having a conversation.

  15. I think the invention of social media has made extroverts out of introverts; but, ironically, I think we’re less social than we were, say, 15-20 years ago when we didn’t have the Internet as a go-between.

    If you went to a concert then, you were there with your friends, socializing with them directly and being “present in the moment”, as you mention. Now we go to concerts and get lost in our own little “social 2.0” worlds – whether it’s to update all our virtual friends instantaneously about what’s going on, or being the first to tweet, blog, or post a video on YouTube. Sure, we’re being “social” as it were; but at what cost? The tangible part of socializing and connecting has been lost.

  16. Sometimes it does feel like life is something to be documented on social media rather enjoyed for it’s own sake.

    I love social media, but I don’t want to become a slave to it.

  17. Robyn says:

    I remember going to a Joni Mitchell concert in the 90s and having my experience diminished by another concert goer who wanted to sing along with Joni. Maybe she was too much in the moment?

    I agree with Lisa Newton (above) who said that events should be conversation starters. If we become addicted to documenting our lives, our old age will be spent in watching the film to see what we missed.

  18. Ron says:

    You gotta be kidding me. The bands sound like they’re complaining because 100% of the audience’s attention wasn’t focused on THEM.

    How someone chooses to “participate” in their own life is their choice. But please tell me how my being at a concert and sharing the experience via cell phone UN-participates me in my life. Did I suddenly NOT be there? Puh-leez. Get a grip.

  19. Jen Zingsheim says:

    Absolutely…social media not only removes people from the moment, in many cases people are so busy “recording/reporting” the moment they don’t think about how their actions look to others.

    I posted yesterday that this inattention to others has become such an epidemic, that I think social media is turning otherwise pleasant people into rude, impolite, inattentive bores. Not a great combo for something that purports to advance social connections…

  20. riva says:

    Definitely an issue with life in general these days. I notice it a lot with digital cameras and of course cell phones. I find myself contemplating Twitter and Facebook status/updates dreamily in moments of downtime.
    I’ve noticed that friends often phone when they are just walking somewhere as if the walk itself were not enough to engage them.
    I think the more virtually connected we are, the more important it is to meditate, be quiet, stop and listen to the moment before buzzing about it.

  21. crosby says:

    Jonathan – you have put name to a problem I have been musing over the past two weeks. As someone who blogs about fashion PR and works as a web publicist/social media strategist, I find that I no longer experience much without immediately connecting to it’s social media implications/opportunities. I read an article and share or twitter it before I have even finished reading. I celebrated my birthday recently and was taking pictures mostly with the purpose of blogging about the night for those who were unable to attend. I no longer have thoughts for the sake of having thoughts, but of who and where to discuss said thoughts via social media. It makes me wonder if we are going to see some kind of backlash, a renewed appreciation for hermitism perhaps.

  22. Anna Marie says:

    I definitely think tweeting diminishes our ability to fully experience the present moment, which is why I struggle at being a major contributor to conversations in the twit-o-sphere. I look back at my tweets and realize that I only submit things when I’m bored, waiting in line, or on my way somewhere. Once I’m at my destination, I get absorbed in what’s going on. The last thing on my mind is to pull out my phone and text about it.

  23. Thanks for writing this. I understand both sides. I have a newfound appreciation for helping others “attend” an event from home, but I also experienced a moment this weekend at PAB where I was on one side of the room during Julien Smith’s talk and my computer/phone/everything were on the other side of the room.

    That turned out to be the BEST moment for me of the event. But it doesn’t mean having to put down social media completely. Just paying attention when those beautiful moments occur.

  24. Marcia says:

    Always recording an event, the “apartness”, rather than simply enjoying the experience, is a commonly described drawback for traditional journalists and photographers. And there is no sweetness to being in a crowd of picture-takers because there is very little joy left to record. The joy has been sucked out, so why try to document it?
    On the other hand, a photo or some writing by me from my own life has tremendous meaning because it re-kindles all the sight, sound, taste, feeling, etc. of that experience–a genuinely frozen moment that might be completely forgotten otherwise.
    I think the band is commenting on that interesting dichotomy. Cell phone photos & videos and social media are here to stay, so everyone must decide for himself.

  25. I agree that we can lose a lot of the experience of being present by documenting rather than experiencing. At the same time, I was struck by the similarity of documenting experiences with the nature of taking notes in a class. Note taking in a class can help a person focus and be more present in the class, although very much in an intellectual way. So documenting and being present need not be separate, but the nature of the experience and the type of interaction may dictate what type of presence is best.

  26. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Everyone – Holy cow! I go to teach a yoga class and come back to 25 fabulous comments, you guys are truly amazing. I love this community!

    Seems like we tapped something that’s been bottled up inside a lot of people lately. We all love how technology adds to the way we experience life, but struggle to find the balance between “enhancement” or “distraction.”

    I think the first step is to be conscious of the potential experience-limiting impact, then choose more consciously. Do I tap communication or documenting technology to share or memorialize the experience or set it aside and choose to be more present and maybe share later in the form of re-telling.

    A number of you have brought up the decision to photograph or live-tweet really special moments so you can share them in real time or have mementos to remember them more vividly. I totally get the argument, just not sure if I agree that living it to the fullest, then retelling the story is the lesser choice.

    I’m curious whether you all think it makes a difference whether the purpose of live-journaling the experience is to share the moment while it’s happening versus the desire to create a tangible reminder to reflect back upon at a later date?

  27. Anne says:

    You’re absolutely right.

    I was given an amazing opportunity to go for a helicopter ride round the island I live on with a bunch of friends. It was a gorgeous day and the views were absolutely stunning… what I saw of them anyway. I spent more time looking through my camera viewer trying to get the artiest than actually looking out the window and enjoying the whole thing with my friends. I really regret that now.

    Now, whenever I go to the beach or go for a picnic I make sure I’m having a great time, making the most of the moment, instead of worrying about taking photos of the scenery or of others having fun.

  28. Melle says:

    Interestingly, there are apparently more corporate rumblings about this, too. Read this just yesterday: I’ve Had Enough of “Live” at Conferences

    Part of resulting discussion I had was musing about how much of the presenters you’re actually getting if they’re flitting all over with other conversations (digital or otherwise) while presenting. Which, really, is the same as wondering how much the journalist/audience is getting out of things, just from the opposite side of the stage.

  29. shelley says:

    The Purpose? Both.

    To share the moment- To give one the idea of being connected at all times so that one does not feel alone or unloved.

    To reflect- to have an experience to share with another at a later date, thus proving to us that we are not alone or unloved.

    I don’t enjoy the instant social media myself and I do find it a grand distraction to my involvement in the present moments of life.

    There are times when I am in the middle of an experience that I am dying to share with someone. I have a moment of longing and then reflection over that special someone…if I simply took out my crackberry and took a photo and instantly shot it over to this person, the instant gratification of it removes the longing. I like the longing. It is the longing that makes the hugs and conversations with your long lost friends SO SWEET.

    If I do take photos it is to reflect on it later, to post it online for my folks to see what I am up to, and its not 50 photos in the middle of the concert either…
    I would argue that those who are using technology so that they can be more “connected to the shared experience of the moment” are missing the boat totally when they are stepping out of the actual event to digitize it and send it through the air waves- they are signaling that the people who are actually standing there with them in the moment are not as interesting or desirable share partners- that there is someone else who is “missing” from it…

    I would argue (or firmly press with a smile) that they are cutting themselves off from the organic experience, replacing it with the idea of connection, and missing the moment AND the joy of retelling about that moment later on.

    Reach out and smile at the person at the concert, maybe share a laugh at the comedy club, be open to meeting someone that you couldn’t have anticipated…

    Instant Gratification Squashes Rumination and Authentic Inhabitance once again.

  30. Wow. Love this discussion. I was reading an entire post about twitter being on the blink over at Men With Pens earlier. So many upset people. Tons of comments. I wanted to say, people…too much, too much, live your lives.

    Then I thought they are. This is how some people perceive communication and engagement. To me it is engagement once removed, but it is engagement on some level.

    This is from a guest post on Tim Ferriss from Dr. Stew Friedman:

    “… there is a more subtle and pervasive problem that reduces satisfaction in the different domains of life: psychological interference between them.

    That’s when your mind is pulled to somewhere other than where your body is. ”

    It is something to think about.

  31. New things are really cool until the reach a certain level of saturation. Then they become intrusive and annoying. Think about cell phones. Once everybody got one and people started using them in restaurants, at movies, in the line the line at the grocery store, and even in the bathroom, there was an inevitable backlash.

    The same thing may be happening with social networks and related services. They are certainly cool right now. But their very success and increasing ubiquity may cause people to stop and think a little more about where, when and how we should use them. And that’s a good thing.

  32. Great post! You have articulated a thought I was chewing on just the other day, Jonathan.

    The incessant need to be “doing” and “recording” as an observer reminds me of the time when I was delivering babies as a family physician. I often observed the dads or significant others hugely busy with their video or camera equipment, creating the perfect production. I suspect it was a subtle and even unconscious way to avoid facing the emotional enormity of the moment and the pain the woman was enduring.

    It was this recollection that triggered my thoughts about our constant “updating”. It feels almost narcissistic – “look at me, see what I’m up to, mom!” Appropriate in a 5-year old; less so in a 25- or 55-year old!

    Let’s use these tools to connect meaningfully – to request resources and opinions, and then share responses appropriately.

    Two days on Twitter was enough to convince me that this so-called intellectual exchange was not a whole lot better than inquisitive voyeurism.

  33. Lisa Newton says:

    Sharing the moment would entail the act of listening to others viewpoints about a particular event.

    For example, if you watch a movie by yourself, you might enjoy it and tell others. But, if you watch the movie with friends, you not only enjoy the movie and tell others, you talk and discuss your impressions of the plot, the feelings of the characters, and the drama of the ending.

    This is how I think about just documenting an experience vs sharing one.

    @crosby I don’t necessarily think that reflecting on life via social media is always a bad thing.

    Usually on Wednesday’s I do a Wordless Wednesday Walkers post; in essence a picture taken to while on a fitness related walk which I share with my healthy living community. Today, while I was walking, I saw a grocery cart in which resided a bee hive. The store had the cart roped off so no one would go close. To see an fairly large beehive in LA was unique, so, I took several pictures.

    If I hadn’t been thinking about Wordless Wednesday, I wouldn’t have taken them at all.
    Now, I will have a visual memory of that day, and that’s makes it a little more special. Plus, I get to share these neat pictures with people who wouldn’t have seen them before. It’s a win/win situation……………:)

  34. Jonathan Fields says:

    Love the continuing conversation, gang! Let me see if I can guide it a bit, though.

    I want to be clear that, in my original post, my intent was not to bash social media or micro-blogging at all. I actually still use them on a daily basis and find HUGE value in them. For me, they are tremendous tools that provide “access” to intelligence, people and information and, at the right times, even comradery.

    What concerns me isn’t the overall usefulness of these modes of communication and sharing, but rather a very specific use, the live journaling of events and activities that might better be enjoyed more fully and then reminisced about not through documentation, but recollection.

    Social media and micro-blogging, on the whole, are neither good nor bad, it’s how you implement and interact with them that determines whether they add to or take away from your experience of the moment and of life.

  35. It ‘s hard to say Jonathon which is more reliable as a testament to the enjoyment of the event, on the spot response as evidence, or our recollection of the event sifted through our filter of experience. If we look at the recording of the event, the recording tends to more and more be the memory. And it is only a part of it.
    But do we fully trust our recollection? We must not, otherwise we wouldn’t record. Can we recollect all the sensory perceptions unless they are impressed fully upon us? How can they be fully impressed if we are busy sending out? I don’t know. Maybe it is like anything, social media included, it’s all in how you use it. Perhaps we have a paradox here.

  36. Lisa Newton says:

    Ok, I understand, and I totally agree. How can some really enjoy an concert, event, seminar, or anything else and live journal it at the same time. It’s kind of like watching TV and talking on the phone at the same time. You’ll miss out on parts of both.

  37. Laurie says:

    Yes. When I went to my son’s high school graduation last year, I was so concerned about getting the moment on video that I missed the moment all together. I knew immediately what I had done. I was so sad.

  38. Linda Abbit says:

    I often say to my husband, “Put down the camera and just take in the experience.” So, that’s my preference overall.

    I think it equally important however to reminisce, recollect and then record those memories! We think we’ll always have them in our minds, but now that my relatives are aging and dementia has set in, how I wish I had recorded many of those family stories, recipes, words of wisdom, etc. years ago! I wish I had either audio- or videotaped my grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents sitting around reminiscing about the good old days.

  39. Jonathan Fields says:

    Update – After posting this article yesterday morning, I saw my highest single-day increase in followers on twitter by a very wide margin.

    I wonder what that’s all about?!

  40. Sally says:

    Hi Jonathan.
    Such an important question. Since April I have been ‘a journalist of my own life'( thank you for that – I am going to borrow it!). I read your piece on how specialists blogs do much better than general and felt down. But also read your piece on loving the writing – and I do and that’s my reason for doing it – so felt good and carried on !
    But I can’t blog pieces that I want to fully have as an experience, especially with friends. When I am with them I want to be with them. Not turning them into copy in my head. Sometimes they ask if I am going to blog us and seem disappointed when I say not – but its because I want to be part of not apart from the experience.
    A friend was lucky enough to go canadian whale watching recently . On the boat was a 2nd time tripper – her reason for taking the trip again- last time she had spent so much time taking phots that she didn’t feel she had actually experienced watching the whales.
    That’s why your question is important and I know that my ‘experiencing’ feeds my ‘documenting’ indirectly in other ways. If I am not fully present and participating – I think ultimately that will make me less creative and inspired.

  41. Justin says:

    I had a feeling that was what they were going to be upset about, at least once I read that it wasn’t because of copyright or anything. I document things occasionally, but I usually don’t, because as you said, it takes away from the moment.

  42. Sue Murphy says:

    I think social media has the opportunity to enhance one’s experiences, if used correctly. Blogging and particularly micro-blogging allows us to share our experiences in an immediate way, to reach out to other people and draw them in to the overall experience.

    There are limits, however. Twittering every single aspect of one’s day is not necessarily a good use of the tool. Although it can sometimes be entertaining if presented in a humourous way, knowing every intimate detail of someone’s life is not high on my priority list.

    What I do enjoy is how these tools allow us to reach out to others and engage in discussions, and make connections, however brief they may be. That can be a source of inspiration and motivation.

    Healthy amounts of microblogging do make a valid contribution to the space, in my opinion. As long as it’s done in such a way as to not detract from what’s going on in your offline life.

  43. Jim Carlson says:

    I experimented with mobile blogging during a road trip and found that there were many times where blogging about what’s going on simply can be a distraction. Kind of like the ‘tourist’ photographer who misses the trip because he is more concerned about getting the best shot…. It is a balance thing.

  44. Dana Seilhan says:

    Those bands are SO right. I’m an amateur photographer, and I find that if I go to a local event with a thought to looking for material for stock photography, or even just want to get pretty pictures from my day, I am not participating in the event or even really there mentally for my daughter (her dad’s usually with us so at least he’s interacting with her a lot). I like getting the pictures but I know I’m missing out too–it’s hard.

  45. Craig says:

    I think it has a positive impact. But then again it does suck up quite a bit of my time.

  46. allan isfan says:

    I recently attended a huge music festival in Ottawa Canada. I was there with a bunch of friends. Normally, after a particularly great performance, I would lean over to one of my friends and share my excitement “OMG that was incredible”. I can now easily do that with friends all over the world that via twitter. So if you’re an artist and you see me on my phone … I’m probably just telling the world how great you are and getting you new fans so stop the whining!

  47. […] Is Social Media The Ultimate Buzz Kill? | Awake At The Wheel: Are we becoming so addicted to telling people about what we're experencing that we actually forget to experience it? […]

  48. […] me, if there is a killer application for social media, it doesn’t lie in the realm of grown-ups. It’s not about business or marketing or […]

  49. […] me, if there is a killer application for social media, it doesn’t lie in the realm of grown-ups. It’s not about business or marketing or […]

  50. Steve says:

    I absolutely agree that being more concerned about documenting and/or recording an event does remove you from that event.

    As a freelance photographer I spend countless hours covering college and pro sporting events. Friends are constantly asking me about specific games and plays but in most cases I have no recognition of any of those events. Why? Because I’m so focused on making sure I get the shot.

    I used to take my camera along to shoot my daughter’s soccer games. Once I realized that I wasn’t sharing in the joy and excitement of the games, I put my camera down. I encourage anyone to try this sometime. Take pictures for the first half of an event but then put your camera down for the remainder. As a spectator or participant, you WILL notice a significant difference.