Perception and social media

"We're at a crossroads between digital and humanity," says Altimeter's Brian Solis, as his company researches the link between perception and social media.
Written by Tonya Hall, Contributor

Brian Solis, futurist and principal analyst of Altimeter Group spoke to TechRepublic's Tonya Hall and explains, "We study emerging technology ... and then we explore its impact on business. We're a research-tank and think-tank, and ... we share our research around the world and help organizations know how to compete for the future."

Watch the video interview above or read the full transcript below.

Tonya Hall: How much do social networks contribute to your perception of reality? I'm Tonya Hall for ZDNet, and joining me is Brian Solis. He's a principal analyst and futurist and Altimeter Group. Welcome, Brian.

Brian Solis: Well, hello, hello, hello. It's been a long time.

Tonya Hall: It has, and you're doing well at Altimeter Group. What do you guys do there exactly though?

Brian Solis: Well, for all the geeks out there, they can appreciate. What we do is we study emerging technology as and before it's becoming disruptive, and then we explore its impact on business now and over time, and we essentially are a research-tank and think-tank, and from there, we share our research around the world and help organizations know how to compete for the future.

Tonya Hall: You're gonna be at South-by-Southwest. Your talk is a little different. South-by-Southwest is a big platform to showcase your work. You did something, like I said, a little different though. What is it that you're gonna be talking about?

Brian Solis: Yeah, well like you said, South-by-Southwest is one of those things where I think you and I can geek out over drinks one day about all of the years that we've been going to South-by-Southwest and what a community it's built for the tech world. It's one of those places where everybody uses it as a soapbox and a platform, for whatever they're working on or maybe to draw attention to themselves or to their efforts or causes.

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This is a time to talk about our relationship with technology. This has nothing to do with my work. I finished a year-long research project for a global beauty-brand that's pretty much a household name, and they wanted to understand how social media and smartphones were affecting self-esteem, their personal definitions of beauty, and how they saw themselves in the world. After finishing that research, I walked away a changed person.

I interviewed people from 13-years-old to 61-years-old, and there's a direct correlation between all of this stuff, and how we live life. Not just our self-esteem, but it turns out that the deeper I got, it was almost like this investigative report. The deeper I got, the more I learned about how technology was designed to be addictive and manipulative, and really the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn more.

And I walked away feeling like, "Why isn't this being talked about? Why isn't this research out there? Why aren't there massive studies that are helping parents and teachers and employers and colleagues and peers and role models?" And I realized, wow, this is a time where no wonder why politics are what they are on Facebook and in social media and why there are Russian bots. It's because it's just all happening so fast that no one taught us to be ready. No one taught us how to use these things and how to stay true and strong throughout it, and this is a real important time that I think we have to take a step back in order to move forward.

We're really at a crossroads between digital and humanity. I wanted to share all of the insights that I got from that research and also, more so, to just talk to real people in the audience to say, "Gosh, we're here. We've all got our phones. We're all sharing every moment of what's happening here and before and after. Maybe it's time that we take tech back; that we take control over tech instead of letting tech control us."

Tonya Hall: Jason Calacanis, a very popular venture capitalist and startup entrepreneur, has been proudly claiming he deleted Facebook and Twitter apps from his phone. So smartphones and social media have such an effect on our self-esteem that should we all be deleting these apps from our mobile?

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Brian Solis: The easy answer is everything in moderation, right? That this is a time, as corny as this may sound, of mindfulness and really understanding who we are and what we're trying to be and then take that insight and apply it to how we decide to use technology. I don't know that you need to delete Facebook and Twitter, but you should know the principles about how those were designed and why you do what you do every time you log on and why you share the secrets behind the "like" button.

Jason Calacanis, as you know, he's a good friend of yours, a good friend of mine, he's someone who can do that. He's got a big platform. He's got people to do things for him. His information still gets out, and information still finds him, but for everybody else, I don't know that they know what's happening, and that's, I think, the story that we all need to talk about.

I've been involved with Twitter since it launched, and back in the days when Facebook opened up beyond the university system. I've advised these guys over the years, and I feel somewhat duped in the process. I don't think they understood the full ramifications of what was gonna happen. I think that everybody may have had the best intentions going forward, but I mean, if you just look up and you look back to where we are and compare it to today, and you look at the state of polarizing relationships online and just a complete nonsense of conspiracy theories and how it's believed as truth and bots taking over trending topics, there's a real problem, and we're on the cusp of technology that's going to be able to take, say, a video of you and put words in your mouth, and all it takes is one hoax to convince the entire world that there is nothing that they can trust anymore.

So, we haven't even seen anything yet. This is a real good time to reflect.

Tonya Hall: Geographic relationships versus affinity relationships. We used to talk across the backyard fence to hear and accept the different views, but now we silo ourselves in our own interests. In fact, Farhad Manjoo just posted an article, a New York Times piece, that he basically stopped using Twitter and Facebook and social media, essentially for news feeds, and he went to hard facts, like he went to the actual getting his newspaper articles out of ... I think it was Washington Post or New York Times, I think San Francisco Chronicle, and he did that just to see how that would impact his perception of what the news really was versus what we get as far as an opinion and to your point, bots, and all this other kind of forced information that isn't actually fact.

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So, should we completely disconnect from the standpoint of news for our own health? Should we follow Farhad's example?

Brian Solis: I think Farhad is an example of what critical thinking looks like, and it's something that I think is becoming an increasingly lost art. I think for critical thinkers who want to maintain that level of criticality and just non-biased or unbiased, yeah. I think absolutely that we have to cut back or cut out certain things.

I'm more worried about the people who are losing the ability to think critically or are just maybe not interested in it at the moment, just simply because of the facades that all of these things create. I'm more interested in creating a network of people who can combat the falsities and to re-inject reality and truth into our streams in ways that are going to serve as some type of counter to all of the things that are gonna keep happening and increase and happening over and over in the future, and that's what I worry about.

So, for example, during the 2016 election, I created a bot-network to fight the bot-network, as a test, to see what would happen if you could strip it down, right at the source. It was fascinating, the results we got, and I took it to Twitter and Facebook as ways to say, "This is happening under your nose right now." I could get zero meetings with them, and it wasn't until recently, that they even started to acknowledge that something was going on, and they still haven't really done much about it.

Yes, folks do need to step back if they feel it's going to help them maintain a level of just good perspective or honest perspective or just perspective in general, I guess, but I also need to recruit people to understand that there has to be a counter to all of this, and you can't talk about the resistance if there isn't an organized effort to bring back humanity into technology.

Read also: Facebook's News Feed changes: A look at the likely consequences

Tonya Hall: Well, South-by-Southwest is certainly a great platform to do that, and what you're saying is actually really powerful, and only a few people are saying that right now, and you're certainly one of them leading the force. I really appreciate you spending some time talking about it.

If somebody wants to find you, Brian, at the event or maybe they want to connect with you and find out more about what you do, how can they do that?

Brian Solis: Well, they can ... Basically at Brian Solis on everything. I was thinking, "Gosh, which network do I choose?" It's @briansolis, your network of choice. I hope to hear from you, and if you're at South by Southwest, I hope to see you there; I could use the support.

Tonya Hall: Yeah, you know, Brian, you've got lots of followers and lots of fans, but if somebody wants to follow me you can do that certainly. You can do that right here on ZDNet or find me on Tech Republic or maybe find me on Twitter. I know, Brian says I shouldn't use it, but I do like to tweet, and that's @TonyaHallRadio on Twitter or Facebook by searching for the Tonya Hall Show. Until next time.

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