NEWS23 September 2010

Social media risks triggering privacy crisis, warns Andrew Keen

Trends UK

UK — Social media is driving us apart, not bringing us together, and its erosion of privacy will have damaging effects, researchers were warned today.

Andrew Keen wrote in his 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur that the internet is “killing our culture”, so it was no surprise to delegates at the Social Media Research Conference in London to find him defiantly downbeat about social media and its effects.

Keen warned that it’s wrong to see the phenomenon as ‘social’ at all, and that it in fact has more to do with growing isolation and alienation in society.

Increasingly, he said, “social media is life” whether we like it or not, but the idea that it can bring us all together and solve society’s ills is wrong. The dominant trend since the industrial revolution has been for increasing isolation and individualisation, and social media is a continuation of this, he argued.

“What we have is a version of the social which is entirely individualised, entirely objective, which reflects our particular interests. I think what it’s doing is creating more and more alienation, isolation. It’s fragmenting us, in the same way the industrial revolution fragmented us in the 19th century.

These views are unlikely to dissuade researchers from wanting to exploit social media for insight, but Keen did have warnings about using information shared voluntarily online. He sees privacy as the great vulnerability of the social media revolution, and believes that sooner or later this will lead to a crisis.

“The real explosion’s going to come when we wake up to location-based services,” he said. “I don’t think people understand the danger. We’re creating a world of dramatic transparency. Location services can see through your walls. When we lose [privacy] I think we’re much weaker as a human race, when we fall in love with this new orthodoxy of transparency.”

Privacy, he said, risks becoming a privilege reserved for the wealthy and powerful, as businesses crop up selling services to help people protect their privacy and reputations.

“People are realising that the internet is not a utopia, it’s turning into the very nightmare they we’re trying to avoid,” said Keen.

Although it’s a future he’s “not particularly excited about”, Keen believes he can’t avoid it. He is as opposed to social media, he says, “as I am to my own death”.

Click here for an exclusive video excerpt of Keen’s conference speech.