Studying the impact of innovation on business and society

This So-Called Digital Life: Re-Evaluating the Value of Social Media


I think I’m getting tired…

My connectedness is slowly seizing my quiet moments.

My sanctuary of enjoying my thoughts alone is now threatened.

The moments of watching life pass by as I take pause are now replaced by the need to plug in and socialize without truly socializing.

I swipe, pinch and zoom, and scroll as if I’ve become a digital conductor of sorts.

The light of my mobile screen is the calming I need to fall asleep each night and the stimulus that starts each day. I’m not alone in this statusphere.

The truth is that my thumbs hurt every now and then. It can only be from relentless txts, emails and updates. I know I’m not alone.

I often feel alone when I’m not connected or that I’m missing out when I read the updates of my friends. It makes me rethink my priorities in ways that wouldn’t be the most productive…at least by yesterday’s standards. Should I have joined them? Maybe getting out would be just what I needed. Again, I know I’m not alone.

I’m not addicted. I’m not in need of a digital intervention or digital detox. I intentionally live this connected lifestyle because I find value more times than not. It’s a choice. But, still I wonder. I wonder if the value I get out of my interaction across a dizzying array of networks is right or simply right in the absence of discovering alternative value or utility.

It comes down to virtue I suppose and where I choose to rank the qualities of social networks and connectedness in what ultimately defines who I am and what I do. Again, it’s a choice

In social media, there has to be something more fulfilling than attention and validation around this digital self-expression. There must be something more rewarding than the measure of people who see or respond to my expressions.

A Like, Retweet, comment, response, or view shouldn’t mean as much as they appear to, yet I see those who are consumed by the duality of a social life support system…living life in the real and digital life and trying desperately to tie them together. By way of illustration, Millennials and Generation Z kindle an unhealthy fixation on the number of interactions and followers they have on Instagram and Tumblr. Just follow the activities of a 13 year old on Tumblr, SnapChat or to see appreciate the inordinate worth placed on the number of people that follow them or respond to updates. If they don’t get what it is they solicit, they’ll try again…this time with a bit more fervor. As time passes, they’re self-conditioned to expect a baseline reaction.

With every action, we expect an equal or greater reaction…

New profile pictures.
Provocative questions or random icebreakers.
Humble brags.

We invite attention because we’re learning to lean on it and the reactions that pour through our screens warms us. It reminds us that we’re appreciated, that we’re loved, that we’re alive.

But, perhaps it’s this value system that requires reevaluation. I believe we can invest differently in order to get more out of this digital lifestyle

I refer to today’s value system in social engagement as the 5 Vs. With each update, we look for something in return and each represent a shifting balance between…

1) Vision (I learn something, I’m inspired);
2) Validation (I’m accepted or justified);
3) Vindication (I’m right, cleared);
4) Vulnerability (I’m open); and
5) Vanity (Not egotism, but accidental narcissism. I’m important),

These 5 V’s coalesce differently with each update and produce distinct emotional results based on the measure we apply to our own actions, reactions and inactions.

Whether we realize it or if it’s simply a matter of our subconscious seeking attention, inspiration, empathy or any other stimulus, we are compelled to share. That’s just human nature of course. In a connected society though, we owe it to ourselves reflect and deliberate new possibilities. This is for us and those whom we influence and inspire. Yes. This is bigger than just you and me. None of us have the answers. We’re learning. And, that’s what this is about…learning to learn.

I had the opportunity to interview Anil Dash at Pivot Conference in New York. Both a friend and someone whose work inspires me, Dash and I explored the state of the social web and its impact on a digital culture. The spirit of the conversation embraced the notion that the value system of the social web may have evolved upon a crumbling foundation of wrong and right. What is wrong and right anyway? Maybe the answer lies in the web we lost according to Dash.

“We will spend three-to-four years with our thumbs on our cell phones,” he shared with me during our interview. That statement caused the audience to gasp. It was obvious that they were thinking about it in the moment and long after the discussion was done. But our time together would only produce additional reflection. “The fact that I spend more time reading my social streams than I do reading to my young son is a problem,” he continued.

Dash believes that the answer lies in rethinking value to re-train ourselves in how we use and appreciate social media. Dash along with Lifehacker Founder Gina Tripani co-founded Thinkup, a new startup that connects your social networking accounts and tells you what matters about the time you spent there. ThinkUp aims to also help you “learn a little bit about yourself” and to “feel good about social networking.”

He, like you and me, seek not only balance, but significance and meaning to help us become something more than an accidental narcissist. It’s the only way to save a social web that we may be losing. The value we take away from this digital lifestyle must only be surpassed by what we invest in it. That’s for each of us to define. And define it we must.

My new book…#WTF

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72 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “This So-Called Digital Life: Re-Evaluating the Value of Social Media”

  1. Cathy Burrell says:

    Thanks for this Brian. I hate to be obvious, but isn’t education the answer? Social media education in elementary schools, and in retirement homes. When will social media’s ‘Jack ass’ cachet wear off, and the reality set in, that ordinary people need to be educated in what social media is. With all the growth in Twitter and Facebook expected to be in developing countries in the next decade, the time is now.

    • briansolis says:

      Indeed Cathy. The problem is the lack of teachers and systems willing to introduce this into the curriculum or even at home.

    • Jim Traister says:

      Gosh…how come the “teacher card” comes up with the responsibility on this one?

      Wouldn’t you agree that the example could easily be set at home? It is always amazing to me that people put so much responsibility on edcucation’s plate when it is parents that spend 4x as much time with their children than teacher.

      I would agree with most that the education system is broke! With that said, as a parent myself, teacher and owner of a social media management company someone needs to take responsibility and that would be the parent during these times and always!

    • briansolis says:

      Jim, I’m forever a student…

    • So am I and I think that whether we have “teacher” on our business cards or not, we also have the responsibility to share whatever we learn to people around us inside or outside of schools/universities/retirement homes.

    • Hillary Boucher says:

      I hear you and agree with much of what you mention. It’s also good to think about how schools contribute much to our societal norms so when you are looking to affect a large portion of society it makes sense to think about how to work within the school system. Also, not everyone may be able to help guide their children through this rapidly changing digital paradigm shift.

    • Jim Traister says:

      You are so right Hillary…eloquently said!

    • PamMktgNut says:

      I agree @briansolis:disqus. We are working on some local training for parents and teens focused on both safety and balance. We are not seeing ANY organization educating parents on the balance or even details they need regarding the social landscape and how to help their children navigate it for the different aspects of their life.

      A subject truly near and dear to my heart.

    • briansolis says:

      love what you’re doing…

    • Jim Traister says:

      Agree! Not sure that many understand what social media is and/or the value found by being connected. Believe that sometimes that we think that the majority understand social media because of our own circles that we live in. There are hundreds if not thousands of businesses that have no clue still needless what you reference as “ordinary people.” 100% agree the time is now!!!

  2. Sherri Spelic says:

    This is a very helpful breakdown of so many aspects of our so-called connectedness. Although I still feel very new to many forms of social media, I am noticing its steady creep into my previously sacred mental spaces. My phone is not yet smart and the number of outlet subscriptions I hold remains in the range of manageable, and still the presence of those 5 V’s is undeniable. Staying aware, remaining awake and alert at the keyboard have become as demanding as the keeping up itself. No solutions, so far, just the question: If I change nothing, what are the implications?

  3. jon_mitchell_jackson says:

    Before the internet and social, I would go to the library to read a good book. I’ve never written a book and contributed to all of the words of wisdom stacked high and low on the shelves, but I sure did benefit from what I found between the covers.

    Today, I continue to enjoy absorbing all the information found between the covers of my ever growing and constantly changing social media virtual library. Unlike in the past, I’ve now “published” hundreds, if not thousands, of thoughts and ideas on social. I hope a few have benefited from my personal and professional posts.

    When it’s all said and done, it’s simply a choice. The answers to the questions “Who teaches?” and “How should learning take place” are as unique and different as the people asking the questions. Publishers are now consumers and consumers are now publishers. It’s a good thing that the questions and answers constantly change– and so does social. I’m going to to out on a limb her and say, we’re just getting started 🙂

  4. “Maybe the answer lies in the web we lost according to Dash.”

    I’m not sure that we lost anything. There are new wrappers on the web – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest – but the ‘old Internet’ – email, IRC, even Usenet – are still there.

  5. Ursula Ron says:

    Dearest Brian:

    You are a brave man, and brave men and women have doubts.

    Let’s take it for given: I was different. But time was different only some 15, 10 years ago. So take my below remarks with caution.

    I am horrified; horrified watching parents (fathers and mothers) out on the street with their babies and toddlers.

    They mutated into one-handed invalids, because their other hand holds a mobile. They navigate strollers with one hand over the busiest crossings while talking on the phone. They support their toddlers with one hand only when they climb up a ladder. And when they stop, sit down on a bench, it is not for gently caressing their children, it is to read something on their mobile.

    I feel the impulse to talk to them, to shake them and shout at them “Wake-up you are missing out on the true life! These days will not come again. Once gone, gone forever. The hundreds of words you shared on the phone. You should have given them to your child! Its soul and brain needs them. And your hand, it shouldn’t touch a screen, it should be your child’s cheek”.

    Am I hysteric? Maybe.

    Internet, social networks are part of our live and the live our children. As with everything, we parents have the responsibility to take care of them and to help them to make wise decisions. You know… the sort of “Maybe an apple instead of another piece of cake?” “How’s about a card game instead of online games?”, “You for the real thing – visit your friend, instead of chatting!”.

    To everyone: I have no idea, if or when schools, ministries of education, and teachers will start to talk about the social media in their curriculum. They will, likely too late, just as usually. But if this is what you really care for (and it should be) offer to give a lecture for your child’s class.

    To Brian: I “know” you from your posts, webinars, and also from Altimeter. I hear the discussions about the impact of social media on business strategies. (After all I am a marketer…). That is not why you are important to me. It is your constant call for seeing social media as – a social process. A process that, yes, happens to us, but which we are also able to form and to give meaning to. Thanks for that.

    Brave men and women need time on their own. Funny, with or without the social networks, this is my weak point ever since I became a (working) mother. I find myself awake at the strangest time during nights and early mornings, only to be able to say: It is me, only me.
    No role to fulfill. To connect to the person inside I became around the age of 19, and which I believe hasn’t changed much since then. Of course I learned and worked a lot and hard, moved to another country, lost a brother, gave birth to three amazing sons, and, and… But my “me” seems to have stayed the same, and I need this moments to get “aligned again”.
    Brian, make sure to have time for yourself.

    Finally, brave men and women get tired just like everyone else. Then
    they should close their laptop and eyes.

    Brian, I wish you all the best,
    Ursula @ronursula

    • briansolis says:

      I love this comment Ursula. Thank you.

    • Hillary Boucher says:

      I unfortunately find that parents, in particular, are vilified for their tech adoption.

      If a parent were a bookworm and constantly carried a book around would they be judged as missing their kid’s childhood or would they be lauded for providing an example of passionate literacy?

      If a parent were a hobby photographer and you constantly saw them juggling a camera and baby would you say they were missing their babies’ childhood or fostering a healthy hobby, that also feeds them as a parent and allows them to be a better parent?

      What about the new mobile working parent who can pick their kids up from school because they can work from anywhere, but needs to check emails throughout the process? Is that flexibility, access to information, & tools worth anything? Is showing up and the flexibility tech provides worth anything?

      I find this sort of attitude towards parents using tech conjures up nostalgic dreamy memories of a time when parents sat around and gently caressed their children’s cheeks. I dare say that wasn’t the case. Parents were reading books, doing crosswords, talking with other adults, shooting photos, writing in journals all while parenting. We’re just doing it on a new medium. And if you go back before the industrial revolution parents were so busy simply surviving (growing food, cooking from scratch, handwashing clothes/linens) I’m sure they got in just as much gentle cheek touching as the modern parent.

      In the 1980s we were plagued with latch-key kids and we realized that no one knew their neighbors anymore. It’s my thought that this current hyper connection is a response to parents/neighbors getting the connection that was lost when we stopped living in multi-generational homes and neighborhoods.

      I think we’re in the process of finding balance.

      Here’s a great blog post on the topic:

  6. Tim Penning, PhD,APR says:

    Well said, Brian. I teach public relations, and caution my students about balance on social media and in all of life. As for me, I go social free on some weekends. Meaningful time with people I’m with is far more refreshing and rewarding than quick bursts of remote connectivity. In other words, it pays to put my wife ahead of wifi. Keep thinking and sharing.

  7. If your thumbs hurt I think there might be a problem… ha

  8. Patrick J. Muller says:

    It’s a ‘problem’ of identification. People actually think there is a digital ‘YOU’ to maintain or uphold. Just like they think they are their ego. It’s nothing but brain chatter, one brain ‘talking’ to another. Facebook is the car you drive, not the sights it shows you.When you start treating it (and teaching it) as the biggest consumer research program in the history of mankind you things tend to fall into perspective.

    One should ask oneself, *who* is it that feels lonely when your digital platforms are not checked at regular intervals? That’s the real interesting question..

  9. LoriGama1 says:

    So right, Brian. I’m so glad someone finally said “it.” And glad and not surprised it was YOU.

    This digital life must have goals, just like my “real life” does, or else I’ll just meander through it. So, of course, I’ve got some big goals.

    But my question is this: is there really a line in between the digital life and the non-digital life? Or are we, as a human race, transforming into a new matrix – in the dictionary-defined version of the word “matrix”: “A situation or surrounding substance within which something else originates, develops, or is contained.”

    Side-note: when I catch myself engaging more with people online than with my own family, I put my laptop to sleep or set the phone down and go be with my family. Because I’m an online marketer and digital since 1995, “it” is just part of me – even before the big transformation that began for everyone now involved/connected in social networks. I refuse to be on the phone when I’m with my teenager. I let my calls go to voice-mail. I have precious little time left to spend with him before he moves off to college and, thankfully, we both realize this so when we have time together, it truly is without the distractions of Tweets buzzing my phone. (Though, for the record, I do love Twitter and social networking but I love my son more, of course).

    At this point in time, people are using the digital world and all of its resources, media, tools, good things, bad things to do the same things they would have done had they not had those items. Some are doing amazing things. Some are not doing much of anything. And that is probably how they are leading their “real” lives (just an observation: not a judgement). In other words, what we human beings do with our lives, digital or non-digital is up to us. The technology, the tools exist but what we CHOOSE to do with those things is up to us, individually (in a free nation).

    p.s. Brian: have you ever considered writing a science-fiction novel and allowing these brilliant thoughts you have to take on a life of their own? Yesterday’s insightful sci-fi writers ended up predicting many, many things that, at the time, were fiction but now, have become part of our lives now. (Gene Roddenberry, Philip K. Dick come to mind). It’s on my bucket list to write at least one sci-fi cyber novel. I would love to read yours!

  10. While I agree that there are tons of advantages to healthy, online social interaction, you have to draw the line somewhere. I still make a point to go and SEE my family, and ignore my texts/voicemails when I am with them. I think too often people get engrossed in their online lives and find it a better replacement for their actual lives. Balance is key here.

  11. David Parada says:

    I’m still a novice when it comes to social media. So for me, it is still full speed ahead as it was said in the U.S. Navy. It feels like there is so much more out there and that I am just scratching the surface. For those who label themselves “professionals” maybe there is a limit as to how much is too much. For me, I feel like I have just seen the tip of the iceberg and I have a lot more digging to do. I’m going to do what I have to do to enjoy myself.

  12. Josh Granton says:

    Navel gaze, much? Let’s face it, social media people like you clamor for the attention and the chance to proudly proclaim how busy you are, and then write stuff like this? Stop being so self-centered.

    • briansolis says:

      Generalize much? I’ve written about societal impact of the web going back to the late 90s, so please don’t bring that incorrect assessment here. Thanks.

  13. It is simple. When you question your time spent on your digital life, ask (being radically honest with yourself) what does this moment contribute to my life? If it is aligned to your life goals, win.

  14. Ben Landers says:

    Thought provoking post – love it. Recently, I was at the Inc. conference and Gary V asked the audience to raise their hand if they hate it when someone calls them on the phone. About 50% of the audience raised their hands. The people at this conference were mostly presidents and CEOs of Inc. 500|5000 companies – mostly men in their 40’s and 50’s. It’s absolutely amazing to me that what started as a substitute (email, texting, catching up with a friend on FB when you can no longer get together with them in the real world, etc.) is now the PREFERENCE. And at the same time, there’s a growing recognition that most of the connecting we do via social sites is empty (and that’s putting it politely).

  15. I feel your pain. I wrote on my blog today “11 Ways to Enjoy Social Media – And Find a Great Bar” because I was feeling just like you. I’ll have to check out Thinkup.

  16. PamMktgNut says:

    Good article @briansolis:disqus. I have been having some of these same thoughts lately. I have been questioning each day, each hour my own engagement in social media. I have been digging deep into my own purpose and actions during what should be “off” or “family” time. As I have been analyzing even my own actions, identity, value and everything you mention here I have found much of my actions to mean less. I have found myself turning off more and focusing on in life activities, in real life relationship building, clients, projects on the back burner etc. I admit even I am guilty of often getting caught up in the hype, the shiny object (as much as I try not to). When I take a good look back at the past year I see the time wasted (or not wasted… depending on what you value) that could have been spent executing projects, new business endeavors etc. that likely would have delivered even higher quality of life balance.

    One good site that helped me put this all in perspective a few years ago was If you haven’t heard of Rachel’s mission, I highly encourage you to check it out. It’s a must read for any parent or caregiver for that matter. It changed our life a couple years ago and I have been a proud “hands free mama” since then. I no longer multi-task at the kids baseball games, dinners out. I focus on the moment and live in it.

    I think much of this all comes down to our identity (as you state), who we are, who we want to be and what we want to do with our time. It’s about who we want to be when we grow up and where we see our life going. We can’t let ourselves get so caught up in the moment of a tweet or retweet, influence score that we lose grip on who we are and what we need to accomplish in this world.

  17. Dawn Renee Rice says:

    I love what you say here, “I’m not addicted. I’m not in need of a digital intervention or digital detox. I intentionally live this connected lifestyle because I find value more times than not. It’s a choice.” I can relate to this statement because my line of work is content writing/marketing across four different blogs/interests for myself and for my clients.

    Much of my time is spent online, researching, sharing and reading what I find on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc. Occasionally I receive a comment or two from friends or family about how much time I am online (they follow my blogs and social media). “Aren’t you supposed to be working?” they say. Um, I AM working. We are in a new “digital” age and a time when it is more and more common that people work from home doing their business online.

    However, with that being said, I too suffer from forgetting to find and keep a balance. Recently, I spent several months on constant projects and my dad passed away tragically in the middle of it all. Needless to say once the deadlines passed, I had to take some time off completely – from everything. Work and online activities mostly because I was feeling burnout coming on. After my break, I feel stronger but much less interested in getting and staying online as I was doing before.

    Another thing I’ve had to realize is just because I get an email/text/phone call/notification doesn’t mean I have to answer or look at it right then, especially if I’m doing something personal with family and friends. Another great idea? Timeblocking instead of multitasking. I block certain times during the day or week to do online activities and it’s made things so much less stressful.

    Thanks for sharing this post and being honest with us and yourself. It’s refreshing!

  18. The lessons learnt from ones non-digital lifestyle can also be applied to their digital lifestyle. With centuries of learnings being passed over generations and with decades of personal experience, still we are all learning in our non-digital life.

    I do think we have not even moved into the ‘learning’ phase of our digital life, we are in the excitement phase, where there is more excitement, anxiety than absorption, which I guess will change over time. If we see the big picture, transformation from ‘excitement’ to ‘learning’ phase becomes easier( though these phases are not mutually exclusive)

    – Ramesh ( Twitter @Ramesh_Ramki)

  19. toridumke says:

    Thanks for reframing this problem as a need for reevaluation rather than elimination. I find my connectedness overtaking my life at times (thumbs hurting), but it also adds so much to it that I’m not willing to give it up. “Investing differently to get more out of our digital lifestyle” is a great suggestion. Thank you for articulating the current value system–it’s a good way to gauge my intentions. I looked into ThinkUp as well and am excited to see it in action!

  20. When Brian Solis admits he feels jaded about social media, you don’t feel so all alone.

  21. mckra1g says:

    I’ve noticed that as a result of my immersive, integrated digital life, I have allowed IRL life social skills to either atrophy (or become less dextrous in the transitioning/translating). Also, being saturated by and within social media reminds me of witnessing an out of body experience while walking through fun house mirrors. I have to shut off the firehose on occasion, so that I can determine which “mirror” reflects my core: those present online or offline. The answer for me is usually “both.” I’ve always admired your approach to how we as a species operate within an emerging and amorphous medium. Thanks for helping me think today. Best, M.

  22. Kathleen Schmidt says:

    This is a very thought-provoking post! I actually find myself thinking the same way much of the time, and I am a college student, pursuing a degree in digital marketing!

  23. Lee Odden says:

    As a natural introvert, social has been an important appetizer of sorts for my real world interactions. That online to offline dynamic of learning and sharing is where a lot of my social “magic” happens. Distractions and temptations of time suck are all around, but as you say Brian, it’s a matter of choice, as well as priorities and values. I’m hungry for more though, so sign me up for a big plate of balance with sides of significance and meaning to go 🙂

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