THE BLOG
10/03/2014 04:10 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Social Media: Epic Power, Beauty and Terror

Social media has taken hold of us. Most of us use it. Many of us are addicted to it. Some of us can't stop talking about it.

Social Media. (Note to reader: I'm going to refer to social media, a plural, in the singular.)

Do you remember the shock wave in January 2009 that shook the media world when a tweet broke the hard news story that a plane had to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River? That's social media in action. There are now so many examples from news events. Twitter and YouTube both play well when it's about breaking news: the Arab Spring, the Fukushima earthquake, ISIS, Ebola, etc.

Social media has migrated to smartphones, another milestone in its ever-evolving evolution. The fourth screen is where social media is thriving and where we live most of the time. Social media is always with us. It goes where we go and we share it again and again ad-nauseam. Even if we have a tendency to paint things in a cheery light while people around the world are suffering in extreme conditions we will tweet and post as if all is well.

Some people seem to hate social media. Recently, Tom Hawking in Flavorwire wrote a piece on Gen X novelist Bret Easton Ellis' tendency to conflate millennials (he calls them "Generation Wuss" and social media. It seems Ellis hates both (although last year he did tweet a shout out to Lena Dunham, a millennial icon).

In truth, there is a beauty, power and terror in social media. It reminds me of something the Roman historian Livy said about history. As it's best, social media captures "the infinite variety of human experience."

The proliferation of social networks has also created a new anxiety among human beings. It's the "keeping up" syndrome. I remember attending a high-level 3-day Master Class on digital media in New York City last year. It was an exclusive event with about 40 people from all over the world who work on the frontlines of new media. People had flown in from New Zealand, Argentina, Sweden, France, Britain, Japan, etc. simply to be challenged and to stay abreast of all the rapid change in the digital and social media realms.

Early on the first day we filled out a card saying why we were there. It was fascinating. Most people were there because they were afraid that they weren't keeping up with everything and were falling behind all the change in the shifting and transformative digital landscape. Basically, most people were there out of fear. They didn't want the world to pass them by and leave them in the dust.

There is a lot to take in about social media. Each single platform -- whether the big ones like Twitter and Facebook or some of the relatively newer ones such as Instagram, Snapchat and Tinder -- require time, thought and if you use them for business, a strategy.

Let's take a moment and go to Statistic Brain and look at the numbers. As of this year, 1.4 billion people are on Facebook. 11 percent of the people on Earth. 680 million of those Facebook users are on mobile. Overall, Facebookers spend 640 million minutes per month on the network. Of those users, 48 percent of the 18-34 age group check Facebook as soon as they wake up.

Let's see about Twitter. There are nearly 646 million users. Twitter has 2.1 billion search engine queries per day. 135,000 new users open Twitter accounts every day. And, 120 million unique visitors visit Twitter every month.

In general, the younger you go, the greater the engagement on social networks. 98 percent of 18-24 years olds in the U.S. are on social media. Every month, 490 million unique users go on YouTube.

I could on and on with the stats but you get the picture. This is epic. It's growing and there's an army of young people using social media on their smartphones. Just walk around any major city in the world and see it for yourself. We live in a ever-flowing stream of tweets, posts, search queries, and likes.

Brian Solis, a guy who thinks a lot about social media, once wrote, "At its very core, social media is not about technology, it's about people. Connections, emotions, expression become the souls and personalities of online communities. The ties that bind them together are relationships. And it is in the value of relationships that people on either side will find value. Without value, mutual benefits, the quality of a the relationship erodes."

People are looking for connections. It could be finding the best product. Or, a mate. Or, simply oneself. It's ok. It's an imperfect set of media but it allows for creativity and self-expression as well as hate and idiocy.

And, Solis is absolutely right: it's about relationships. And usually there is a value for the person who is on a social media network. There's something mutually beneficial. Again, this is part of the beauty and addictive attraction of the social media world.

Relationships matter and they now have an economically quantifiable justification for business. A new study quantifies for the first time that "shared online content, such as recommendations between friends, now influences consumer purchases more than price and brand, carries nearly as much weight as in-person recommendations and can motivate buyers to spend 9.5 percent more for a product." The "Return on a Share Report" was released a few months ago by ShareThis and quantified the monetary return on online recommendations.

Kurt Abrahamson, the CEO of ShareThis, had this quote in his post about the new study: "We are seeing a fundamental shift in consumer purchasing behavior," said Lisa Weinstein, President, Global Digital, Data and Analytics at Starcom MediaVest Group. "The explosion of social content like recommendations is having a real impact in people's day-to-day lives, including what we buy and how much we are willing to pay. While we've known intrinsically that online engagement is important, being able to quantify the monetary value of online recommendations and sharing, as these findings do, is incredibly important for brands."

This is a good thing in my view. The positive economic impact of online relationships and social sharing is real and makes a difference.

However, we also have another variety of human experience in the etheric universe of social media. The trolls. Slate had a story by Chris Mooney about the "the science of Internet trollology."

Mooney reported on a scientific study conducted by Erin Buckels and her colleagues at the University of Manitoba. They called their study "Trolls Just Want to Have Fun." (They were trying to be ironic.) The researchers discovered a clear relationship between "trolling and the Dark Tetrad of personality: trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism."

In other words, Internet trolls are narcissistic sadists. As the researchers put it, "Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others...Sadists just want to have fun ... and the Internet is their playground!" We have sadists in everyday life. You don't need to go online to encounter them. They're in our offices, in our families, in our politics.

Social media can tell us when something big happens almost in an instant. If you recommend, like or share something, a friend may buy it. And, as in other areas of life, there are sadists and psychopaths. As Livy said, the "infinite variety of human experience." The whole living human circus is online. Social media is not just escapism but also a house of mirrors reflecting our images -- good, bad and ugly -- to each other. It's a tool but it's also a distraction within a distraction. It can help somebody make money and it can also terrorize. Welcome to our brave new world.

I keep in mind two counterpoint quotes about this new world. Kristen Lamb in her book, Rise of the Machines -- Human Authors in a Digital World, wrote that in a machine driven world with so many distractions "most of us have the attention span of a meth-addicted squirrel."

But there is another quote from Sherry Turkle that I prefer. She wrote in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other: "Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies."

It's just a proposition but it's hopeful. We're the makers of our future and it will be up to us whether we end up dangling from a metaphoric online tree branch like a "meth-addicted squirrel" or if we use technology and social media to design and create our most intimate selves in the new world. You get to choose.