NSFW: 404 Alcohol Not Found (Or, Social Media is Overrated, but it's Helped me Stay Sober)

Earlier today, my friend Oli emailed me to say he’d noticed that one of my sites was showing a 404 message.

Specifically, he was emailing to congratulate me. According to the site in question – ispauldrinkingagain.com – it has been 404 days since I last drank alcohol. And, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I owe a large amount of credit for that to the power of social media.

Making that admission is slightly awkward, given that on Tuesday you’ll be able to watch me take part in a CNNMoney / Webbies debate with Gary Vaynerchuk where I argue in favour of the motion that “social media is overrated”. And yet my reason for supporting the motion is simple: despite how much I owe it, social media is overrated.

It’s overrated when it comes to politics: the fanciful claim that it can win elections (any more than can offering immobile voters a ride to a polling station or any other kind of grass-roots initiative) is completely unproven. It’s overrated when it comes to foreign policy: despite a million green avatars and an appeal to Twitter by the state department to postpone scheduled maintenance, Ahmadinejad remains in power – as powerful and bat-shit insane as ever.

Most harmfully of all, I’d argue, it’s overrated when it comes to charity: for every idea like Twestival – where Twitter was used successfully to encourage donations from people who previously might not have given – there are a thousand Facebook groups and “please RT” campaigns perpetuating the lie that clicking a button and thus “raising awareness” of an issue is the same as volunteering or donating money or – you know – doing anything even slightly meaningful.

It’s hard to tire of Malcolm Gladwell’s stat (in the New Yorker) that, from the millions of people who joined the “Save Darfur” Facebook group, the average donation was nine cents. “That’s better than nothing!” cry the social media fans – an argument that assumes none of those people had a charitable bone in their body before Facebook came along. Far more likely is that many of those people wanted to do something charitable and where previously that would have required them to write a check – for far more than nine cents – they can now satisfy their conscience with a simple click. To those people, Pete Cashmore’s trite maxim that “attention is the new currency” is as smugly satisfying as the old miserly idiom “charity begins at home”. Sadly, as any economist will affirm, the new currency is currency.

And yet, and yet… there is one area where I concede that social media is – as the kids might say – a “game changer” where it can, as those same kids might say, “do us all a solid”. And that’s in situations where a single person needs a small amount of – usually selfish – help from a relatively large number of people. Some people (say, those who want to sell books) might call it “crowd sourcing”; to my mind it’s closer to group therapy.

Gladwell concedes this point too – referring to Clay Shirky’s story of a New York man who used social media to track down – and shame – the kid who stole his cellphone. Good for him! Gladwell also points to the slightly more heartwarming case of Sameer Bhatia who used Facebook to encourage people to join a bone-marrow registry in order that he might find a donor to aid his treatment for myelogenous leukemia.

A little over 400 days ago, the selfish assistance I needed from a large number of people was in helping me give up drinking. And, as with most effective social media campaigns, what I needed those people to do was virtually nothing.

Anyone who has read my previous book – or most other things I wrote before October of 2009 – will know the reasons why I had to quit drinking. Anyone else probably won’t care. All you need to know is that there came a point where I decided I absolutely, definitely had to stop. The problem was I’d found myself trapped in a ridiculous cycle where my livelihood – and more importantly, my ego – was built on a reputation for drinking to excess and then writing about the resulting adventures, for fun and profit.

In order to end the cycle, I realised I would have to use that same ego to the opposite effect. And so I decided to announce – on my blog, on Twitter and on a variety of other social networks – that henceforth I would never be seen with another drink in my hand.

Once I’d made that declaration, sheer force of ego demanded that I stick to it. I had no way of knowing who had read about my decision, but based on my (then) Twitter follower count, the number of retweets and the traffic stats to the relevant post on my site, I knew that within the first couple of months they numbered just shy of a quarter of a million. No matter where I was in the world, if one of those people spotted me with a drink in my hand, they would know I’d failed; something my ego simply wouldn’t allow. (When I decided to quit social media, I registered ispauldrinkingagain.com to keep the pressure on, but also to cut down the number of emails I receive asking me if I’m back on the sauce.)

Of course, I’m lucky to have other platforms that I could have used to similar effect – this TechCrunch column, for example. But there’s something about the immediacy, faux-intimacy and reciprocity offered by social media that makes it by far the most effective way to solicit help from strangers, and to be accountable to those strangers afterwards.

As I’ve never been someone who drinks alone, the watchful eyes of those thousands of strangers – along with a decent amount of willpower and the support of some amazing friends – have kept me sober for 404 days. For that reason – in spite of my cynicism, and my continued insistence that it’s massively overrated – I owe social media a debt of gratitude.