Media Review – Andrew Keen: What is Social Media Really Doing to our Society?

Andrew Keen is described as a supreme cyber grumpy and the anti-Christ of Silicon Valley, due to his negative views on the digital age. He recently wrote a book entitled Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us, and conducted several media interviews upon its release – such as his Skype interview with WebProNews.com (ientry, 2012). In his interview he answers several questions relating to how social media is affecting society. He takes the position that social media in its current state is a detriment to society and culture, and is destroying our privacy (ientrey, 2012). Even though he argues that social media is causing our current society to lose sight of itself, he still uses social media to further his messages – as well as sell his book. It is an interesting dichotomy that drove me to analyze this interview, as opposed to his book. In order to do so I will compare and contrast Keen’s logic on the demise of society via new media with the society-building belief of Harold Innis. As well, I will compare his negative theories on new media with the optimistic views of Marshall McLuhan.

In his interview Keen states that the Internet and social media brings on a dangerous form of digital narcissism whereby we share everything online – practically nothing is private. Keen says that this is enabling us to lose something essential of what it means to be human and along with it our sense of culture. In essence, Keen believes social media is a detriment to society (ientry, 2012). If Harold Innis were around today he may have a different view. It could be said that Innis believed that new communication media throughout history shaped our society to what it is today. Innis wrote The Bias of Communication well before the advent of the Internet and social media, but much of what he discussed can be applied to current and future communication technologies. Innis critically analyzed the transition of dominant communication technologies throughout time and how this shifted society. Through this he posited that culture creates media, which then changes society (Innis, 1949). Our current society is where it is today because of these shifts in dominant communication media and the societal changes that ensued.

Although Keen believes that social media is a detriment to society, he still admires how it is being used to topple governments in the Middle East and challenge Wall Street. The problem he sees is that it is not very social – that it is just an aggregation of individuals (ientrey, 2012). Because of this he states it is not surprising that so-called revolutions, such as the Occupy Movement, have not fully materialized into coherent viable political movements. It is not actual people coming together, but rather their online entities assembling toward a cause – what he calls the new collectivism of the social age (ientry, 2012). Innis argued our perception of culture is dependent upon how it is portrayed through media, by those controlling the media and the type of media dominant at the time (Innis, 1949). By looking back through history, Innis showed that it can take a long time for change to occur. Yes, the technological advancements in communication do hurry the process quite a bit, but I believe that more time needs to pass in order to judge whether this new collectivism of the social age is an actual means toward change.

In his interview with WebProNews.com Keen negatively states that social media and the Internet exaggerate our narcissistic behaviours by enabling us to focus on ourselves and broadcast our every move (ientry, 2012). Even though he says that humans are quite adaptable to technology, he worries for the future where we may have reached a point of no return – all privacy is lost. Marshall McLuhan, the first father and leading prophet of the electronic age, also discussed narcissism in his 1969 interview with Playboy magazine. Where Keen believes that new media is exaggerating our narcissism, McLuhan argued that new communication technology is created as a result of our narcissism, as it is an extension of our bodies (McLuhan, McLuhan & Zingrone, 1997). McLuhan believed this was beneficial to society as he said, “The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process…” (McLuhan, McLuhan & Zingrone, 1997). Whereas McLuhan is optimistic and eager for the future of communication media and technology, Keen suggests that we need to think more critically about our use of new media.

Although speaking with a smile on his face, I would agree that Keen is a cyber-grump. He worries and complains about the implications of social and new media, and yet he provides no constructive remedies to its supposed problems – other than “humanizing the web” (ientry, 2012). I would also argue that his views are hypocritical in that he is fostering them through the very same media he demonizes – similar to culture-jamming. In the 1960s and 70s, McLuhan embraced new communication media while others probably feared how it would negatively affect society. Is it simply because some people are afraid of change? As far as I can tell our society has largely benefitted from televisions and computers, so why should I expect any less from current and future media?

Keen may also believe that social media in its current state will destroy society; however the work of Innis and an examination of communication history points toward new communication benefitting and advancing society. In 500 years will we be analyzing how Facebook and Twitter shifted power and money from the top one per cent?  Or will we study the #epicfail of movements started by a digital aggregate of individuals? Only time will tell.

References

ientry (2012, June 12). What is social media really doing to society? [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ij6YUpozGQ

Innis, H.A. (1949). The bias of communication. The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science / Revue canadienne d’Economique et de Science politique, 15(4), 457-476.

McLuhan, M., McLuhan, E. & Zingrone, F. (1997). The playboy interview. In E. McLuhan & F.  Zingrone (Eds.), Essential McLuhan, (233-269). London: Routledge.

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One Response to Media Review – Andrew Keen: What is Social Media Really Doing to our Society?

  1. lindsayfalt says:

    What a thought-provoking entry! I especially enjoyed how you compared Keen’s arguments with the views of Innis and McLuhan. It inspires the reader to look at each of the positions from a different angle.

    I mostly agree with you about Keen being overly negative in his views of social media, however, I have to wonder if he has chosen to be the devil’s advocate and take on a position much stronger than his true position. I know that I often do this if I feel that a scenario is not being considered from all angles. Perhaps his ‘grumpy’ disposition is as a result of the many theorists proposing social media as the magic cure in all things communication?

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