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Susannah Meyer

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The Social Media Bubble

Posted: 12/09/11 08:55 AM ET

In the Netherlands 400 years ago, tulips had just arrived. These exotic flowers started a craze that many call ridiculous. One thing led to another, and people started to offer huge amounts of money for a single tulip bulb -- amounts equal to a wealthy merchant's annual income, or even the value of a house. What was more extreme was that people who had tulips refused to sell them for a small fortune. After a while, people realized that tulips weren't worth it. But what made them drop all logic and reason and give in to that craze? That is the question I've been pondering.

In the 21st century, people obsess over designer labels and materialistic objects. This is one bubble that has yet to burst. Walking up and down the avenues of New York City, stores sell exquisite Gucci bags and high-end clothes from Ralph Lauren. Even in high school, as often as possible, people walk around in designer denim and tote their books in a designer bag. It seems that those who can't afford it want it, and those who can afford it have it.

A faculty member at my school once told me that she was afraid to go into Intermix, a store that depends on designer exclusives, because of the glares she would get, even though she would have loved to buy everything in the store. She said this jokingly, of course, but that didn't get across to me as a joke. Even things like designer shoes with a red stripe on the bottoms will sell for a hundred dollars more, when it probably costs just a couple of cents more to manufacture. Why can't people settle for the same exact object without a small label? I truly don't think it's because of the better quality, which may or may not even exist. I do think it's partly because people want to be recognized as a person with money, and because people want to feel like they fit in to everything and everyone around them.

Did you click on the links of Gucci, Ralph Lauren, and Intermix above? If so, for what purpose? Though you might not know it, you might just be a part of that bubble.

Seven or eight years ago, no one knew what a Facebook was. No one spent hours at home checking their newsfeed or making thousands of 'friends.' No one knew what a 'hashtag' was; we just called it the pound key. No one could tell you the definition of a 'tweet.' As my 2003 Microsoft Word will tell you by underlining those words in red, and by defining a 'tweet' as a chirp, it has stayed in that oh-so-precious time, ostensibly unrecognizable to us now, where everyone spoke face to face and built meaningful, genuine relationships with one another.

Though I myself was only seven or eight, I remember this time clearly. I would go over to someone's house for a play date, or call them on my home phone if I wanted to talk. But now, the social media bubble had arrived, along with rapid improvements in technology. Despite social media being something that connects us, that seems to be the one thing it is doing least. Social media sites give us a place where we can weaken real relationships into artificial ones. Sure, these websites allow us to reach more people than we ever thought we could, but whenever you add one more 'friend' on Facebook, the relationships you had between your other 'friends' deteriorate. In fact, I don't even know if the 'social' in 'social media' fits rightfully so into the connotation of the phrase.

If this phenomenon is not an economic bubble, it is a social bubble. Nominally, people have more relationships than in the real world. However, these relationships consist of no real value. I would call this 'relationship inflation.' These thinning relationships at the heart of this social media bubble are illusions of real relationships. Connections between people are merely marked with bits of random information here and there, and not with real substance.

Some may say that this analysis of the nomenclature of social media is too serious. That may be so, but I do think that the sheer purpose of the Internet, and of social media websites, is to essentially encourage new methods of thinking and communicating through strengthened, more authentic relationships. But now they are lending to the lethargic attitude of people in the world who avoid confrontation and who avoid the real fulfillment of action.

Why do you think these bubbles exist?