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05/14/2010 Social Media, status, stress and defining who you are

Two posts this week really grabbed my attention. The first, via Gavin Heaton's blog, had the catchy title "Why Social Media is More Popular than Sex." Now who wouldn't want to read that? (Remember, it said "More Popular" not "More Fun").

The second post was TrendWatching's latest brief "The Statusphere." At first glance these seemed to be two very different articles. But after digging into them, they both seem to about the same topic.

In social media we talk about how the shift has put individuals in control. In Dennis Price's article on Gavin's blog, he wrote about the negative effects of stress and how workplace hierarchy increased a person's stress (and gave them ill health effects). The lack of control, due to one's boss, was one of the reasons participation in social media has such an allure. The fact that it allows you to listen only to what you want to; to become friends or unfriends with whomever you want to; and the ability to create different profiles gives you the ability to control relationships without the associated stress.

Trendwatching's Statusphere tackles this from another angle. For them, the need for us to have other people's approval is they key, if not main, human emotional driver. They posit that most, if not all, of our behavior comes from our need of status. Typically, in our capitalist society, our status derives from our profession, income and the things we purchase. But Trendwatching notes some new trends, including uncomsumption, generosity and connectivity (the generosity status reminds me of my old Anthropology 101 class where we talked about the Kwakiutl Potlach). The connectivity piece connects directly with Price's thesis.

What jumps out me reading these two articles is the human challenge of letting others define us, or our worth. The struggle, or trend, is about how we want to, on the one hand, receive approval of others, yet, on the other; we also want to be in control of how we define ourselves. Are these two desires in conflict with each other?

Take Price's article on how your boss can increase your stress. In the old days, you'd do as you were told, gain the bosses approval, and rise up on the ladder of promotions until you were the boss. You solved the status and control issues through obedience and meeting other people's expectations. These days, we can't stand this type of obedience, which is why we're so stressed out.

But Trendwatching tells us we'll never get away from trying to meet other people's expectations. Isn't that what status is all about?

What we can do, more today than at any other time, thanks, perhaps, to social media, is to at least define who we are and what we stand for. Are you green? Now it's easier to find other green people who approve of what you're doing. Tea Partier? Don't worry; social media will connect you with like-minded people.
DefineYourself by Big Huge Labs
The ability to define what we like and believe in, to broadcast the type of products we buy and to promote the content we consume makes us feel like we're in control. The more radical types among us, such as Seth Godin and Hugh MacLeod tell us that we don't have to limit this to beliefs or consumption, but that we can change our whole livelihoods based on this desire.

What has changed is that social media has given us a platform and a tool to create and connect. It moves us out of our tight geographic and social sandboxes and exposes us to similar people around the world. It exhilarates most of us and scares the rest of us.

Defining yourself is powerful. It puts you in control.


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