Does Real-Time Social Media Make Us Less Globally Inclined?

Thanks to the 'Right Now' Mentality and Check-in Services Like Foursquare, Local Navel-Gazing Is on the Rise

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Every morning I wake up a little more confused. Increasingly throughout the day, too, I'm bewildered.

Take last Wednesday, for instance. Because I do trend analysis for Ad Age (via the weekly Trendrr Chart of the Week on Wednesdays and the Most Tweeted Brands of the Week chart on Fridays), I tend to check Twitter's Trending Topics list first thing in the morning. But by 7 a.m. where I am (New York City), Americans haven't yet begun big-footing the Trending Topics list by tweeting in earnest, so Twitter is largely filled with all manner of conversations from around the world that are mostly meaningless to those of us in the U.S.

Consider a few of the things the Twitterverse cared about the most last Wednesday. Like "Peterporn." (Per the crowdsourced What the Trend definition: "Nickname for vocalist Peterpan. His band is from Indonesia. He happily participated in the making of two sex tapes with famous Indonesian artists...") Or "Misturei Activia" (WTT: "Activia yogurt is known for its laxative properties. From this idea, Brazilians are playing with the possible outcomes of mixing Activia with other things"). Or "Stemmen" (WTT: "Today there are elections to fill seats in the House of Representatives of The Netherlands. 'Stemmen' is Dutch for 'to vote.') As Twitter's user base grows increasingly global, the Trending Topics list is turning into more and more of a digital Tower of Babel of local/regional obsessions.

Really, the one truly unifying topic on Twitter lately seems to be Twitter itself. For a chunk of the afternoon on Wednesday, as Twitter kept going on the fritz, English speakers caused both "Twitter Over Capacity" and "Stupid Whale" to surge into the Top 10 Trending Topics (i.e., the "fail whale" graphic that Twitter displays when it goes down), while Portuguese Twitterers caused "Baleia Maldita" (translation: "evil, cursed whale") and Spanish Twitterers caused "Ballenita" ("little whale") to chart.

You know that classic "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" commercial? The one with the scrolling text that reads, "On a hilltop in Italy we assembled young people from all over the world to bring you this message from Coca-Cola bottlers" and the chorus that goes,

I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company.

Now the world stands on a virtual hilltop and tweets, all out of tune, about not having been able to tweet two minutes ago.

The internet was supposed to make the world smaller, remember? Sure, to an extent, that's certainly happened. For instance, I've got Facebook "friends" in various time zones across multiple continents. That's one of the modern miracles of social networking.

But I've been realizing lately that one thing the social web also does is reinforce local navel-gazing, mainly because the social web is increasingly so "real-time" focused -- and time zones are, obviously, the enemy of real-time. When North American tweet volume skyrockets during prime-time TV viewing hours, we Americans can't help but underscore our disconnection from the rest of the world (particularly when we're all collectively enthusing about shows that don't air at all, or air at odd hours, overseas). When Britain tweets en masse about Konnie Huq (per the BBC: "TV host Konnie Huq and Screenwipe presenter Charlie Brooker are engaged to be married, her spokeswoman has confirmed"), well, um, congratulations, Konnie? In the real-time social world, we're literally often sleeping while Asia's interests are trending, and vice versa. (Besides, Indonesia has its celebrity sex tapes, and we have ours.)

And ultimately, the current, weeks-long social-media explosion surrounding the World Cup only underscores how few events truly unite the world -- with most Americans still not caring about soccer, of course -- across national boundaries and time zones. (It also underscores, once again, how silly it is that we Americans call our baseball championship the World Series!) Then again, if you take a close look at the atomized, team- and player-specific way in which people tweet about the World Cup, the local-obsession rule still holds. It's just that the World Cup gives a temporary worldwide stage to over-the-top sporty nationalism (just like the Olympics).

Meanwhile, the rise of social check-in services like Foursquare are all about the hyper-local. The web may have given us the capacity to be globally omniscient, but the social and real-time web are reinforcing the basic instinct for extreme parochialism: caring only about what's in your backyard, or what's showing on your TV, or what's happening at your nearby favorite watering hole right now.

How utterly human: As a species, we get it together to build a mind-bogglingly complex network that weaves together millions of computers into a massive, throbbing, bleeping blooping global nervous system, and what do we use it for? To tell our nearby friends that we have arrived at O' Neill's pub, one block away.

That said, next time I'm at O' Neill's and I notice that Twitter is down? When it goes back up, I'm definitely tweeting "Baleia Maldita."

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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