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A nation that twitters together fritters together

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This scares me: “Calvin Lee, a graphic designer, is a massive tweeter. ‘I really can’t stop,’ he joked. In Twitterland, Lee has become a rock star. ‘I’ve gone through life wondering what my ‘thing’ would be. I believe I’ve found it.’ Lee describes himself as a ‘social media ho. I tweet at least 200 times a day.’ He has been quite successful, amassing nearly 80,000 followers. ‘I was not very popular in high school,’ Lee says, ‘but now I’m like the big jock on campus.’ Lee’s growing influence has won him celebrity-status perks. In addition to a free Virgin Airlines flight to Toronto, brands have reached out to him and provided

  • a brand new Audi A8 to test drive for a week
  • hundreds of dollars in gift cards
  • a pass to a House of Blues VIP event
  • a free Samsung Focus smartphone
  • flight, hotel and meals to attend an exclusive conference
  • eight passes to the VH1 Do Something Awards

“Anybody has a chance to experience life on the other side of the velvet rope. Anyone who is willing to work for it…can have true celebrity status and all the associated perks.”

The writer of all this is Mark W. Schaefer, whom I met while we were both on a recent panel. This quotes are from his new book, “Return on Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing.”

[I edited the above remarks for brevity.]

I suppose if I were looking for the poster child of what I consider the dark side of social media, it would be this. Not Calvin Lee so much: he seems like a nice, ordinary dude who’s enjoying his cool new freebies. No, it would be Mr. Schaefer, who celebrates Mr. Lee’s “accomplishments” as though they were right up there with achieving something real and lasting and contributory to society, not to mention providing Mr. Lee with an actual living.

I don’t gainsay Mr. Lee having his fun. I understand the world of swag. I don’t think I ever did anything egregious, but heaven knows I’ve had some freebies in my day. However, two points: (a) I never exulted over them, nor considered them my ‘thing,’ and (b) I always understood they were irrelevant from the point of view of making a living. Test-driving an Audi and going to the House of Blues are fun, I suppose, but at the end of the day, I still need a paycheck to pay the bills. So what exactly does “being a tremendous success at social media and having a high Klout score” really mean to a person’s life? Maybe Mr. Lee has found his ‘thing,’ and that’s fine, if by ‘thing’ he means a hobby, like following the San Jose Sharks or collecting Pez containers. Everybody should have a nice, interesting hobby.

But to treat this kind of addiction to social media—especially if it’s fueled by the hope of getting free stuff—as an admirable goal for a young person, is troubling. This is not something I think young people should view as an attractive potential way of making a living or spending one’s time; nor do I think it’s healthy for the larger society. In fact, it can be downright detrimental to making a living. If you work in an office, can you really tweet 200 times a day (not to mention all the other online activities you’re probably engaged in) without your co-workers feeling some resentment that they’re carrying your work load? Wouldn’t your boss object? How would you concentrate on your work, anyway? I don’t know Mr. Lee, but he seems like one of the people I see on the sidewalks of Oakland or San Francisco coming towards me with their heads down, eyes fixed on their smartphones: I’m the one who has to get out of the way to avoid a bodily collision.

I don’t mean to entirely disparage Mr. Schaefer’s thesis that an “epidemic of influence” by a new group of “Citizen Influencers” has the capability of reshaping our society in certain admirable ways. I love it that the street demonstrations in Tahrir Square, tweeted around the world, helped topple an ossified government in Egypt, or that instant “citizen reporting” from disaster zones informs people what’s happening before the mainstream media even knows it. When Occupy Oakland was at its peak, I was in the middle of it, tweeting like mad, and people were thanking me for giving them the news before they got it anyplace else. I love staying in touch with my family and friends online, anytime, anywhere. I’m glad social media is in my life.

But we’re talking about apples and oranges. There is a positive, plus side to Twitter and a side that should concern us all, when it turns into the mindless addiction to constant tweeting with the expectation of “celebrity perks” that, in the end, are worthless from a moral, family and human perspective. Is crashing the “velvet rope” to some kind of faux-“celebrity status” really what Millennials aspire to? If Mr. Lee reads this, I hope you find a “thing” that’s more productive and lastingly satisfying than tweeting 200 times a day. It may mean less swag, but it could lead to a fuller life and a better job, and you might even discover that your neighbors are real people worth knowing.

  1. Steve. You are using a 4-yr old story (published by Forbes in Dec. 2010) about a 45-yr old (he was 41 in 2010) to disparage a different generation?? I agree with your argument that people should not expect free stuff for no apparent reason, but he’s not that different from any other celebrity. Do Kim Kardashian, Lebron James or Billy Mays really provide lasting and productive contributions to society? Nevertheless, they are granted celebrity status and given lots of free stuff to hawk just as Lee. But calling out Millennials because of a Gen Xer’s behavior is poor journalism.

    If you’re really upset, you should call out the markets for using these influencers instead of the influencers that have utilized a new digital platform, that frankly scares many in older generations.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Calvin Lee is famous for being … what? … Paris Hilton-like “famous”?

    Not for having actually accomplished anything? (Other than simply being prolific.)

    I am reminded of that classic “Saturday Night Live” skit in which William Shatner, addressing a room full of “Star Trek” enthusiasts, decries their obsession by imploring them to “Get a life!”

    [Sorry, I can’t offer a link. NBC pulled the video off of YouTube.]

    Let me introduce you a Silicon Valley buddy of mine, whose commentary on social media questions the inanity of so much of it: Andrew Keen.

    His three books:

    http://www.ajkeen.com/books/

    Book reviews and interviews:

    http[colon]//www[dot]nytimes[dot]com/2007/06/29/books/29book.html?_r=0&pagewanted=print

    http[colon]//bits[dot]blogs.nytimes[dot]com/2012/05/22/one-on-one-andrew-keen-author-of-digital-vertigo/

    http[colon]//www[dot]amazon[dot]com/The-Internet-Is-Not-Answer/dp/0802123139

    http[colon]//techonomy[dot]com/conf/14-detroit/the-new-techonomy-2/internet-answer/

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