Two years ago, an old college girlfriend "friended" me on Facebook. We initially emailed back and forth, reminiscing about the night we tried to knock off a bottle of gin and other dumb things college kids do to entertain themselves.
Then it got a little intimate. We talked about our marriages, perhaps sharing more information than we should have. Come to think of it, we definitely shared more information than we should have.
Then it dawned on me: This girl broke my heart. She dumped me for my college roommate, a pimple-faced guy with an enlarged prostate who juggled and did magic tricks. No, I’m not kidding. Wish I was.
Anyway, that dose of reality did the trick. Our little online relationship had run its course. It ended in much the same way it began, awkwardly and abruptly. And that was that.
For me, that experience has come to symbolize what Facebook (FB) is all about. It draws you in, in a Beach Boys “Wouldn’t it be nice?” sort of way. It’s got a utopian aspect to it. Haven’t you ever noticed how perfect and wonderful we all sound on our online profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter?
But real life isn’t like that. Real life is, well, real. At least it used to be. Now, I’m not so sure.
It’s becoming more and more apparent that the Internet has altered virtually every aspect of our lives. It’s drawn us in and changed us in profound and fundamental ways. And asking if that’s good or bad is sort of a moot point. The change, I’m afraid, is permanent. It is what it is.
Now, before we go any further, let me be clear about something. I’m not one of those reactionary “the Web is evil” guys. I “grew up” in the high-tech industry. I was a senior executive in Silicon Valley. High-tech has been very good to me. But there’s no denying that the Internet is starting to show signs of having jumped the shark.
While this isn’t all about Facebook, that’s as good a place as any to start. Never mind that Mark Zuckerberg’s creation had the most overhyped IPO in history. Or that it burned who knows how many retail investors that had never bought into an IPO and maybe never even owned a share of stock before.
Get this. Even at today’s depressed share price, Facebook is worth more than H-P, Nokia, and Sony combined.
Until recently, those three companies represented the world’s largest computer, mobile phone, and entertainment companies. Together, they employee 600,000 people. Facebook has just over 4,000 employees and annualized revenues of about $4.5 billion. That’s peanuts. That’s about the size of Radio Shack.
Welcome to the new Internet bubble. There was a time when we thought the new knowledge-based economy was going to transform America for the better. Two burst bubbles and a lot of outsourcing later, now we’re trying to figure out how to bring manufacturing jobs back to America.
Unfortunately, it’s going to be really, really hard to squeeze that genie back in its bottle, that’s for sure.
Speaking of fictitious beings, Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o used to have a girlfriend. They knew each other for years. But they’d never met. Turns out she never existed. It was all just an elaborate prank. Now everybody’s wondering what’s wrong with the guy. Is he delusional, naïve, or what?
Here’s an idea. Maybe he’s just an average guy living in a bizarre new online world where an entire generation hangs out. But hey, we can’t hang this all on Gen Y or Z. We are all living more and more of our lives online every day. And that’s creating the mother of all time sinks that’s threatening to swallow all of us whole.
We used to say “too much information” when people shared more than we needed or wanted to hear. Now we all complain that there’s simply too much information. We’re being crushed by communication overload. We have no time. It’s killing our effectiveness and our productivity. So what do we do? We spend all our time endlessly searching online for better ways to manage our time and improve our productivity.
Sounds sort of nuts, doesn’t it? Wait, it gets worse. It’s not like some alien race is creating all that content. We are. We’re all Tweeting, retweeting, blogging, commenting, texting, liking, posting, emailing, and updating so much that there’s no way anybody’s got time to read a tiny fraction of all that stuff. So why do we do it?
We’re all addicted. That’s right, we’re addicted to gadgets, distraction, and instant gratification. We’ve become slaves to that insistent voice in our heads that never stops nagging us to tweet, update our status, and check our inboxes. It’s like we’ve all developed attention deficit disorder. Welcome to our ADD culture.
It’s gotten so bad that even Silicon Valley’s high-tech elite are worried about the monster they’ve created. They’re so concerned about our growing addiction to smartphones, social media, and gaming that they have an annual conference called Wisdom 2.0 to debate what, if anything, should be done about it.
It’s just like when booze commercials tell you to “drink responsibly,” or when the GPS device in your car warns you that taking your eyes off the road to watch the big, attractive display with the pretty colors can result in injury or death. What’s next, mandatory labels and text messages that say, “Please use the Internet responsibly?”
Come to think of it, maybe that’s the answer. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the Internet. Maybe this isn’t about Facebook or Twitter. Maybe having access to all that information at our fingertips and the ability to connect with anyone, anytime, anywhere is actually a good thing. But all good things come with a price tag.
I’m thinking that the price for powerful innovation is responsibility. Just as we’re still learning to use the automobile, the airplane, biotechnology, and nuclear power safely and effectively, the Internet is going to take some getting used to. We’re going to have to learn to use the Internet responsibly.
In the meantime, I suspect there are going to be plenty of “Gangnam Styles” to download on YouTube, Kim Kardashians to follow on Twitter, and maybe even another botched IPO or Internet bubble or two. And, as with all things with addictive properties, we’re all going to have to learn our lessons and our limits.
I bet Manti Te’o has. I know I have.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.