Can social media affect human behavior? This was a question posed to me at the Social Media Cafe in Barcelona by Steve Lawson. Steve promotes Amplified, which is a project, co-funded by NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and Sleepydog, that’s exploring new ways of joining up the myriad disparate networks in the new technology space. (photo by thomashalpin)

Steve’s position, as I understand it, is that social media only enhances the existing behavior, and cannot necessarily change pre-existing behavior. Put another way, if you are an individual who does not like social interaction, or communicating with people you don’t know, you will most likely not appreciate or use social media. In layman’s terms, if you’re the person power tasting at a wine conference without chatting with the winemaker, or extending a friendly hand to the importer next to you, you most likely won’t find yourself chatting on Twitter either. On the other hand, those who do like to meet new people, enjoy random interactions, and who are generally confident in their opinions will appreciate the applications of social media, using it as a tool to cultivate and instigate conversation.

Where do I stand on Steve’s argument? Personally, having lived in Iberia, promoting Spanish and Portuguese wine for over 4 years, I have seen people’s passion to learn and communicate about wine increase exponentially as a result of social media.

I have witnessed the shy and reserved use Twitter as a means to share their favorite Cavas, articles on new D.O.s or debate about the structure or acidity of an Alvarinho. Through Facebook, I have read words of wine poetry from people who normally strike me as completely illiterate, astounding Flickr photos of lush Somontano vineyards from those who appear visionless, and aspiring and moving YouTube interviews with sherry winemakers from individuals who are as interesting in person as watching paint dry. Social media has given a voice to the voiceless and a means of expression to those who may normally feel shadowed and isolated in their “real” lives.

According to a study conducted by John Horrigan, Pew Internet Project’s associate director of research:

“The most high-tech group we labeled the ‘digital collaborators.’ The digital collaborators are the ones with the most technology, doing the most with it and loving it the most, and really are about not just using technology to communicate with others but to cultivate their creative lives.”

On the flip side, Steve’s position can easily be supported when looking at Spanish and Portuguese wine blogs. There are several retail, winery and citizen blogs that tend to post canned press releases, or sterile tasting notes, composed by individuals who fear being vulnerable and are uncomfortable with the idea of forming relationships with their customers. Culturally speaking, there is a deep-rooted belief in Latin culture that overt collaboration with consumers—showing your cards, if you will—leads to your competition taking the market share; therefore, social media only enhances a cultural behavior that already exists.

In the end, I don’t think social media’s impact on human behavior is as black and white as we might all desire. The rub lies in how we use it as a tool to both better our own lives, and the lives of our community. I want nothing more than to help the international community experiment, play and learn about Iberian wine, and whether that occurs through social media or one-on-one interactions is irrelevant to me. What is important is that we don’t diminish the power of this influential tool to offer more comprehensive information, broaden education, and most importantly, bridge cultural boundaries in ways that could never have been done before.

— Gabriella Opaz is the co-owner of http://Catavino.net, a website dedicated to educating consumers about Spanish and Portuguese wine.

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  • http://www.stevelawson.net Steve Lawson

    I guess ultimately it’s tricky to map, given that one thing that Social Media would certainly appear capable of (if the social scientists who study this stuff are to be believed) is unlocking otherwise hidden potential in the way people behave. It’s true that many people go through life with a whole host of unfulfilled potential, and I think the idea that social media tools make possible a playful engagement with relationships that people who find face to face communication difficult is a very exciting one.

    It’s also clear that when people don’t have to rely on a physical first impression, those who have low self esteem issues attached to the way they look are going to be far freer to connect on an intellectual or shared-interest level on line where they can be represented by an avatar of their choosing.

    the issue with whether or not we are ‘changed’ by it is more one of what it is that ever inspires us to change? I’m sure we can be changed by the information we receive through social media channels – I know I have been changed by that! We can become more connected with the concerns and interests of others, and gain insight into people’s lives and stories, perhaps empathising on a deeper level than we might if such encounters were left to those people we meet in MeatSpace.

    But it’s all fascinating, and I’m excited to continue exploring the benign and socially beneficial effects of social media tools and envirionments, as well as looking at the kinds of behaviours that are fostered by the different platforms that we use. Twitter’s a great example in that it ‘rewards’ engaged, friendly people, and offers a very low return to lazy self-promoting spammers. Contrast that with MySpace which offers an immediate metric ‘value’ to those who seek to game it by automating the ‘friend adding’ process. And many are too ill-prepared to understanding the value of engagement to see how limiting such behaviour can be to ones online presence…

    I’ll shut up now :) x