The Social Media Utopia That Never Happened
A gap in our understanding of structural-hole theory has led to predictable results.
The advent of social media has definitely given a soundboard to anyone who aspires to be a self-help guru, however, the original promise of the new technology was that social-economic gaps would be forever closed and that people around the world would be brought together in ways never before seen in all of human history.
Instead, most people have primarily used social media to do what they have always done; complain, talk about themselves, and find porn.
Rather than allow for a prosperous exchange of ideas, social media has instead allowed people to complain to others who previously did not know that they existed, and oftentimes subsequently wish that they did not.
As an example, LinkedIn, as it was envisioned, was supposed to allow for the mechanic in Missouri who specializes in vintage Chrysler cars to find the custom car shop in Germany that needs that skill but can’t find a person with that exact skill anywhere in Europe. Social media was supposed to allow these two to meet, thus fostering a resulting exchange between them.
The idea is great, and the theory behind it was actually born a couple of decades before the rise of digital media. In 1982, Sociologist Ronald Stuart Burt first published the concept of structural hole theory, which refers to gaps in knowledge within a social structure.
Simply put, two people who could be mutually beneficial to each other are not able to help each other, because they do not know that the other person exists. Burt called the result of this mutual lack of information a gap.
According to Burt, if this gap is closed, then the result is increased economic prosperity for both parties since they will experience an increase in utility. However, the only way to close this gap is via the transmission of information about the existence of the other.
In other words, some middleman tells the shop in Germany about the vintage car guy in Missouri, which closes the gap, and thus the result is a benefit to both the car guy and the shop in Germany. That middleman was supposed to be social media, but for some reason, it has failed.
The promise of social media, and broader digital technology, was that these types of gaps would be closed, but that has not happened.
While many gaps have, indeed, been closed as a result of digital technology, most of those gaps were between established businesses and their customers, or established businesses who were able to benefit one another.
What has not happened is the utopian-style closure of gaps between individuals and small enterprises who can mutually benefit from each other. If this was happening, then there would be a very low unemployment rate in all advanced nations, and a diminishing rate in the developing world.
In reality, anyone who is educated and skilled is definitely needed somewhere in the world, but the inability to know about these opportunities, or to realistically connect with them, keeps many at home searching for something local.
While the vintage car mechanic in Missouri should be relocating to Germany to advance his career overseas, instead, he is searching for a job at the local Wal-Mart, or perhaps in a call center as a customer service rep. And while the vintage car shop in Germany should be hiring this guy and his specialized expertise to help them with their vintage Chrysler demand, they are instead left to depend upon their own limited knowledge and are thus unable to keep up with local demand.
Despite the fact that the technology exists and both parties have access to it, they are still unable to find each other.
The result is decreased prosperity for everyone.
The promise of social media, and broader digital technology, was that these types of gaps would be closed, but that has simply not happened. Instead, social media is being monetized primarily through advertising and sensationalism.
People are apparently still more concerned with complaining, self-aggrandizement, get rich quick schemes and catchy video content than they are with utilizing digital platforms to the fullest global potential. Recruiters still follow old formulas for finding talent, leaving many out in the cold. On LinkedIn, most top influencers tend to be existing celebrities or individuals who promote motivational messages, rather than those who are truly fostering new connections.
Perhaps there is a reason why for all of this, but for now the cause is assumed to be human nature. Perhaps in the near future sociologists will figure it out.
One thing is for sure, which is that until we demand a better usage of social media, the technology will continue to fall short of the dreamers' expectations, and potential prosperity will continue to elude us. We have the tools, we just need to use them.