Andrew Keen on Social Media: “What We Once Saw as a Prison Is Now Considered a Playground”

This past week, I read an advance e-book version of Andrew Keen’s new title, “Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us,” and wanted to share what I believed were important points from the book.

Keen, in a much more thorough way than I do here, explains that social media could be viewed as a prison instead of a playground. Throughout the book, relates social media to Jeremy Bentham and his invention, the panopticon prison. The panopticon, you see, is famous for its architecture since guards could keep watch of its prisoners around the clock – an inspection house. Keen argues this is not unlike today’s social media. One example, he wrote, is those little buttons we see on so many of the top websites – you know, the Facebook, Google+ and Twitter buttons.”Irrespective of whether or not we actually click any buttons, the widgets notify Facebook, Google and Twitter all about the websites that we visit, thereby transforming social networks into omniscient inspection-houses of our online behavior,” Keen wrote.

This point is brought up again when Keen said how our devices betrayed us when the Apple iPhone recorded its users’ locations.

In pointing to “1984,” Keen invoked George Orwell. “It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen,” Orwell wrote. “The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide.”

Keen explained how Orwell further relates to social media. “In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was a crime to express yourself,” he said. “Today, it is becoming unfashionable, perhaps even socially acceptable not to express oneself on the network.”

Keen delves into privacy issues. He discusses the inspection house throughout the book, summons Warren and Brandeis’ Harvard Law Review article in which they discuss “the right to be left alone,” and quotes University of Southern California social media research scientist Dr. Julie Albright, who said that privacy is taking a backseat to the idea that everything should be public. “A lot of people really don’t consider the fact that once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

Perhaps the most telling anecdote Keen shared in this book was his visit to Robert Scoble, who, as @scobleizer, boasts 250,000-plus Twitter followers. As Keen entered the community in which Scoble lived, he couldn’t help but think “about the not entirely unsurprising paradox of the world’s leading champion of openness living inside a gated community of an exclusive Pacific coast town – an enclave within an enclave – that cut him off from the rest of the world.” Not only did Scoble reside in such a private neighboord, but Keen discovered that one of Scoble’s neighbors had no idea who he was. “The irony of one of the world’s best known and most popular social media evangelists not being known by the man over the street only compounded the surreal experience of simultaneously staring at Scoble at his Twitter feed,” Keen recalled after talking to Scoble in front of monitor displaying the tweets of those Scoble followed. “Maybe Scoble really was @scobleizer,” he pondered.

I found this book hard to put down at times. It really puts the idea of social and big data into perspective with regard to what kind of information you and I are putting online, the trust and the relationship we’re forming with it, and why this is all happening. I appreciate that Keen observed that being transparent has existed for centuries and ties numerous examples to how social media is playing out today. This is a tremendous read that should force us to reevaluate the value of social media.

By Adam Bockler

Adam Bockler is a B2B marketing professional, a black belt martial arts instructor, DDP Yoga instructor, and a personal trainer.