March 6, 2012

The Stakes of the Modern Bandwagon

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If we’re currently living in the age of innovation, then we’re also living in the age of staying-in-the-loop. When Google debuted Google+ this past summer, we scrambled for those invitations to get on board with the next social wave. In fact, some obsessed users wanted an invitation so badly that they would even buy them off eBay. Nine months later, the service has surged to 90 million users.

But here’s the caveat: Each user spends only a meager three minutes on the social service every month, a flicker in time compared to the 8 hours that we commit to Facebook.

So what was the impetus behind the clamor to sign up for a redundant service that ultimately turned out to be useless? Surely it wasn’t to connect even more with social circles — we already had a well-established, functioning and vetted networking service for that purpose.

We signed up because we feared being left out. And in an era when an expansive network of friends, connections or followers translates into social validation, and hyper-connectivity provides us our greatest source of information, isolation from the herd would be social torment. So we obediently created Google+ profiles.

But it wasn’t the only case. In the past decade, not only has information technology become more innovative, with start-ups popping up across Silicon Valley, but the speed of innovation dramatically increased. We’re not only seeing more creative — and more addicting — services, but we’re seeing them in greater numbers. And each time we come across one, we’re obligated to join — not because we believe it will make our lives dramatically easier or more enjoyable, but because everyone else joins. Otherwise, we’d miss the train.

Only a decade ago, being part of the herd simply meant you were trendy. Keeping up with the latest developments was merely a badge of trendiness and youth.

Nowadays, though, we’ve taken the herd membership a step further: Being part of the herd has become a necessity for social survival.

So even though we initially may have thought publicizing our resumes on LinkedIn was overdone, we still created an account once everyone else did. And, lo and behold, when one of our friends started Tweeting, we were coerced into creating our own accounts in order to become his follower.

And soon enough, many of us will also be checking into Foursquare, registering for Groupon deals and, in perhaps the most bizarre of the social fads, sharing things that we want but can’t have on Pinterest.

The once-celebrated values of individuality and uniqueness has been replaced by a pathological obsession with sticking closely to the pack. And it doesn’t just show in our Internet crazes. These days, it seems we’ve been stricken by the inability to do even the simplest of chores alone, as if we possess social and productive value only when we go about our daily lives surrounded by others. Going to the grocery store? Surely, you have to text a few friends to meet you there.

Need to write an essay or study for an exam? You’re obligated to invite some classmates to meet you in the library.

What about grabbing some dinner? Of course you will need to have a buddy to come along as well.

On the flipside, social isolation has become a stigma. The student who eats and studies on his own is assumed to be socially defunct, as if his isolation were forced upon him by his peers, not by his own choice.

And perhaps this pathology writ large could explain our country’s political and economic ailments these past few years.

In the mid 2000s, the craze was subprime lending. Investors and homeowners everywhere wanted to get in on the lucrative and cheap borrowing. No one wanted to be left behind as the chumps. In the end though, the herd mentality made all of us the chumps.

And in Washington, we see the slow erosion of the independent moderate. Rare is the Congress member who refuses to vote along party lines. Now, the trend for Congress members is to declare blind and whole-hearted allegiance to either the left or the right instead of thinking for themselves.

But there’s nothing shameful or embarrassing about being alone, just as there is nothing socially maladroit with not having a Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. In fact, to be alone — free from the repetitive stream of texts, news headlines, Newsfeed updates and Tweets — is one of the few luxuries that our generation can afford these days. Once upon a time, we lived by our own whims. Now, we live according to those around us.

Original Author: Steven Zhang