Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Where Is The Productivity From Social Media Technologies?

Posted by Tom Foremski - March 17, 2009

I recently discovered Hank Williams who writes a blog titled "Why does everything suck?" It is well written and often makes some very good points. Mr Williams is a tech entrepreneur based in New York.

I was particularly struck by his post from late September called "You Really Can't Get Something For Nothing." The financial world was collapsing at the time (it still is) and Mr Williams was berating our society for trying to make money from nothing much at all, from the rising value of homes, from shuffling money from column A to column B, etc.

He says that China now produces things of value but the US now produces very little of value. It's a well worn analogy but it still is an apt analogy. He then takes the tech economy to task for creating little of productive value.

In the tech economy, in the last five years we have produced very little that actually makes any of our lives better. Twitter is cute, but economically unproductive. Ditto Friendfeed. Ditto (fill in the blank with your favorite social media platform). These products are economically neutral. And that is not a good thing. To those of you that would argue with me on this point, I defy you to explain the real world economic value/impact of the social media revolution. How does it help increase the real world GDP even one little tiny bit. I dare you. I double dare you. You can’t do it. Because if all of it went away, the world would be the same the next day.

He points out that prior technologies such as word processors, spreadsheets, databases, email, etc, did create value, they did improve people's productivity.

Social media is the first major computing revolution that as far as I can tell, has produced essentially nothing.

He goes on to point out that social media "is perfectly fitting in a society where producing nothing has been in fashion for years. Mortgages without credit. Profit without product. Riches without risk."

Ouch!

Is he right?

Social media certainly seems like it doesn't produce anything of value, that it doesn't help productivity. I spend way too much time on Facebook, Twitter, etc, and I seem to be spending more time there every day.

For my job, however, I do see value and I do see productivity. I use social media to let people know about my work -- it's a very effective distribution channel. I also get to know my readers better. When I was working at the Financial Times we had to set up surveys and panels to figure out who was reading what and what they thought of it.

Social media it also a very good research tool, I can find sources, and I can find information about topics I am writing about faster than before. It does make my work more productive.

But is this true for other professions? Does social media make you more productive at what you do? Is there value in social media.? Or is Mr Williams right when he writes, "if all of it [social media] went away, the world would be the same the next day."

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