Lost in a Digital Nightmare

#nightmare hashtag project
Image by Misspixels

Attention and reputation. That’s what we fight for online, particularly those of us vested in building personal identities and businesses through social media.

By doing so we sacrifice more than we possibly imagine.

We’re wild animals caught, caged and put on display at the zoo. Every check-in, status update, photo, error, and other digitized personal detail will be housed in a database for mining, extrapolation and exploitation to benefit commercial interests.

“I update, therefore I am.”

Andrew Keen‘s words begin and echo throughout Digital Vertigo. This cutting commentary discusses our world of social, and how it’s destroyed human individuality and privacy.

A must-read tour de force, Digital Vertigo walks us through history, from the minds of industrial era philosophers and writers to today’s leading Silicon Valley social innovators. Keen explores how the quest to end loneliness (and gather tons of personal data for commercial use) through social will end up savaging conventional human rights. In the process, Keen takes social media luminaries Mark Zuckerberg, the @quixotic Reid Hoffman and others to task.

“We twenty-first century social networkers–especially aspiring super nodes like myself–are becoming addicted to building attention and reputation. But, the truth, the reality of social media is an architecture of human isolation rather than community,” says Keen.

We’re left to update or our reputation perishes. To succeed, we have to talk about the topics everyone else does, otherwise we lose attention. Social media produces groupthink that bludgeons the individuality out of you.

When we step outside the lines of the accepted groupthink in our sector, cultural eddy, or online circle? SMASH! Ostracization. Don’t think so? Try stepping out and doing something your friends think is unconventional or not normal on the social web. Watch the negative comments come in.

It takes courage to stand against the tide.

Instead, most will succumb. We’ll be stuck online, playing the game, sacrificing every aspect of our real lives in updates, and fearful to be ourselves lest we get beaten down online. Fake plastic trees everywhere. Most will be so tied to our online identities and how many Likes we’re getting, we will lose perspective on real world cares.

This is our modern Orwellian nightmare. We have lost our way.

“Visibility is a trap,” said 20th century philosopher Michel Foucault (cited in Digital Vertigo). If he only knew.

What do you think? Will social save us from loneliness or will it destroy the very fiber of individuality and privacy society has built?


  • I think social has a way of making people feel even lonelier than they already may be. I cherish the friendships I’ve formed with people online, but I’ve often wished that I could spend time with those people in person. Knowing that I can’t often produces a sense of loneliness. 

    Will social destroy individuality? I certainly hope not. I hope there are a few, brave souls who will refuse to tow the social media line.

    • That’s one of the things I really loved about the book. He took us through the plight of man during industrialization as seen by Kafka, Orwell, and others during the 20th century.  Keen showed us how we’re making this sense of alienation worse.

  • One has to fix oneself before one fixes an online presence.

    •  Easily said, but en masse, we’re all broken. Or at least so the book argues.  There is good and bad as with all things.

  • I’ve always thought of SM as a true societal benefit at the cost of individuality and privacy. Communication is more democratized, open, giving those who may not have had a voice the ability to speak to the larger world (e.g. Arab Spring, online support networks). And while I see the nobility in sharing constantly from a conversational and information-sharing perspective, I never fully took to it, because I knew that it would come at the expense of my real-world experiences with friends, family, coworkers and the world at large. I can’t speak for others, but with the amount of time I naturally spend online between work and personal time, the physical world and the experiences within it are made all the more precious. I don’t want to waste them behind a screen.

    •  Can’t disagree with you.  My most precious moments always involve real people whom I’ve met and experienced life with, and that includes my best online experiences, too. They tend to be with people I know!

  • I haven’t actually felt a lot of pressure to be a certain way online, either in terms of how I approach my work (and promoting my work) as a writer, or just as a person with a Twitter or Facebook account. I don’t have a strategy, and I’m quite sure I do and say things that others would probably waggle a finger at.

    The idea that someone would be surprised by my personality if they got to know me in one place and then experienced me in another is a level of dissonance that makes me uncomfortable. If something annoys you about me online, you’ll probably dislike it about me in person, too.

    If / when I’ve had the intent of  “building my reputation” or “being authoritative” in some way or another, I’ve felt like a walking / talking cover letter. I don’t want to be liked / respected / hired because I said the right things in the moment or linked to the right person or promoted the right book or went to the right event or tweeted with the right people or followed the correct strategy. Never ends well.

    It’s easier and more simple to exist honestly: quirky, semi-ridiculous, polite, occasionally exasperated, creative, shy at times, noisy at times, informed but not obsessed, a bit quick to speak without attaching my brain to my tongue on occasion, and utterly unconcerned about what people think of my interests or tastes. I do get negative feedback at times, but what does that really amount to besides words?

    I can’t figure out what you gain from being a robot.

  • The main point in this post that gnaws at me is: “To succeed, we have to talk about the topics everyone else does, otherwise we lose attention. To succeed, we have to talk about the topics everyone else does, otherwise we lose attention. Social media produces groupthink that bludgeons the individuality out of you.”

    I would say this is utterly and completely WRONG. Social media and the Internet feeds on the new, the fresh. Someone who gets the latest news out there first, or poses a new question or tests a new product is going to have people swarming to their network. 

    The Internet has made us a lot of things (like attention-span-deficient) but it has not taken away our ability to relish in the new or step outside the “norm.” If anything it has enhanced that. We may be addicted to status updates and we may be more narcissistic than ever before because of social media, but individuality is one thing that has possibly been improved and has certainly not been destroyed. 

  • Geoff, I deeply admire your bravery in raising subjects like these.

    My wife was recently telling me about the broadcaster Louis Theroux and how popular he is among her students. She described his work as being, simply, about real, albeit odd, people and things, very straightforwardly approached. And I was saying to her how much it seems young people today crave something real — and they go to almost ascetic lengths to find it, because they’ve been raised in an environment where every urge, every wish, every inclination is magnified and captured and monetized.

    There’s a great quote from Cornell West, who was very mad at President Obama at the time. The interviewer asked him about movements, and West said, “There are no movements anymore.” No one can move because anything real is immediately turned into a logo or a poster. A “movement” by definition can’t be real anymore. And so we get young people who simply refuse — they make things like Occupy that thumb their noses at definition. I love seeing how it has confounded the establishment.

    IMHO, that has to be part of the mission going forward. Humor is a big part of it — have you noticed how freaking dull social media has become in the past two years? It’s because no one can afford not to play the part. It’s all about the men and women in the gray flannel social media suits now.

    Maybe it will be social media 3.0 that will finally solve this. Because the flip side of reputation is that anyone trading on it is immediately seen to be doing so, which in theory isn’t great for reputation. Once consumers figure that out — and get access to the tools to monitor that — the game will finally be up.

    In any case, I am thankful that you are fighting the good fight these days. It is courageous and hopeful. Thank you.

    •  It’s been weird watching go from movement to safe, I’ll say that.  It will inevitably spark a counter movement, as you say, the youth have had enough of it.  You would know better than any of us teaching at Newhouse.  I appreciate your great words!

      Thank you!!!

  • Definitely makes one think, and certainly the answers aren’t easy. I’ve been struggling internally lately as I’ve made some realizations about how my online community has shifted greatly over the past year or so, and the connections to my local community, which are, and were, incredibly important to me, have given way to a more geographically diverse professional community. This wasn’t done by design, but just happened, as I worked to grow my business and seek out the knowledge and advice of others.

    At times, even though I see these people “in real life”, I feel very disconnected from the friends locally who made up my support system.

    Now I’m trying to figure out a way back…to navigate a greater balance between these two diverse communities, with little overlap, and without giving up the larger professional community which I hold close to my heart.

    This might just end up as a post for me, which is not something I would normally write about.

    Do I have the guts?

  • I think social media is making us more and more anti-social. It has its benefits, but when it comes to interacting in the real world, people have a hard time, or don’t know how to, interacting with each other.

    Case in point, my wife and I went to see the Beach Boys and Foster the People at Blossom Music Center in Cleveland Wednesday. She went off to get a drink and while in line every single person had their faces glued to their smartphones updating their statuses and read others. 

    Before social media, you could have a sense of camaraderie with strangers because you were all there for a singular purpose — to enjoy music from a band you each liked. Starting conversations and making new friends while standing in lines, even if it were just for the evening, was normal.

    Now, people are more comfortable talking through a third-party app than they are face-to-face. And developing relationships in real life seems much more difficult because of our obsession with social media. It’s kind of sad really

  • The choice between playing to the network for popularity or cutting through the network with authenticity is really the choice we face by being alive. The first will make one temporarily popular, but your personality will turn to pablum. The second will make one an iconoclast, but in the long-term you will be remembered.

    Social media simply brings amplitude and speed to this old dynamic. Grand ideas and institutions are never started by people playing to the old rules. Anyone can go to church. Few can start a religion.

    Nice provocation of ideas, Geoff.

  • Great post Geoff. As an old-school punk rock/skater, I naturally question things. Divergent thinking is the best thing that can ever happen in situations. Skating is about individuality and I bring that to my thought process a lot. What can I do to stand out? I question things a lot and occasionally I get considered to be a bit of a trouble-maker. Why? Because I don’t fall in line?

    My background is different than anyone else and I can bring something to the table that everyone else may not have thought of. I’ve heard that there is no originality anymore. Not with that thinking there isn’t and won’t be. I’m myself online. Like it, love it. I’m no different offline….and I feel sorry for those that choose to follow, rather than lead.

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