Social media has been woven into our social fabric. It seems like almost everybody has some sort of social presence.
It could be Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Facebook or a combination of these.
Heck, I’ve been on all these platforms at one point or another (minus TikTok). I actively maintain no less than four social profiles on different social networks and that’s not counting my business accounts.
Of course, being an advocate of the PESO model, created by Gini Dietrich, I actively promote using shared media, also known as social media as part of your integrated marketing plans.
Mark Zuckerberg stated years ago that his goal with Facebook was to connect the world. It certainly sounded good and so like me, you probably didn’t question his motives.
Connecting people is good right? I mean, this what I try to do through marketing, of which social media plays a role.
Knowing this, you might think I love social media but this isn’t the case. I have what could be termed as a love/hate relationship with it. Though, I feel like this is too simple of an analogy. It’s not black and white. It’s full of greys and it’s complex.
I’ve connected to some great people who without social media, I wouldn’t have ever have known. Some of these people have become friends and confidantes. Others, I’m not as close with on a personal level, but they have an influence on my life. Usually professionally, but sometimes personally too.
I’ve seen and at times have experienced the negatives as well. The trolling, the bullying, the hate speech, the lies and misinformation.
We have all these different social media platforms connecting us to people. For better and for worse. It’s the for worse which makes Zuckerberg seem naive.
Some of these people really didn’t need to be connected. You know the ones I’m talking about.
There is no getting around that there is a toxicity that exists on social media. It’s not all-encompassing but it is pervasive throughout the social media networks.
Everything yin has a yang. Anything that can be used for creation can be used for destruction. This applies to social media as well.
In this post I’m going to talk about social media. What it is, the cost associated with it, how our experiences vary, and finally how it ties to the bigger picture.
What Is Social Media?
You may think this a dumb question. Who doesn’t know what social media is?
As it turns out, there are many people who don’t.
As I’ve watched the aftermath of January 6th, it’s obvious that many people think social media is a public sphere. This includes many politicians.
Kicking people off Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other social media platform has been seen by some as a violation the First Amendment. Social media is a the public sphere so kicking people off the platform is censorship.
There is much to unpack here. As much as I might like to take a stab at unpacking it all I’m going to leave most of it there. I’m not a constitutional scholar or a lawyer.
As somebody who graduated with a degree in communication and works in the marketing and public relations fields for a living, I feel I’m qualified to speak to some of this.
So, what is social media?
It’s a digital platform that allows you to communicate with the public. And that is where it gets confusing. A digital platform to communicate with the public.
Words rarely have one static defined meaning. They can mean many things.
Let me give you an example.
Is it soda or pop? They’re the same thing but depending on where you live in the country, the word you choose will be different. In some areas, you wouldn’t use either of those terms but the word Coke instead.
Words don’t have fixed meanings and that’s makes communication complicated.
In this case, let’s talk about the meaning of the word “public” in relation to social media.
The only way to talk with somebody or even post on social is to join their network. If you don’t join, you can’t participate and more importantly you can’t engage with the public.
This means that the public you are trying to reach isn’t yours. It’s been created by a private company. You are just renting them.
Social media networks are public but they are private-public meaning you have to sign up to use them. You don’t have to sign up to go to a public space. This is an important distinction.
Think of it this way. If you walked into Target, Walmart or any other store you could be asked to leave if they determined your behavior was unacceptable. They can do this because you are on their property. They own it. It may feel public because anybody can walk but it is private. The social media networks are the same way.
There are terms of service that you agree to in order to access a social media network. If you violate them, your account can be suspended or even terminated.
I’ve talked about this before in other marketing posts. Social media is rented land and the landlord can do whatever want with their land including forcing you to leave.
Social Media Has A Cost
There is a cost that comes with joining any social media network.
Now you might be thinking, “I didn’t pay any money to get on Facebook, Instagram or any other social media network.”
You’re right. I didn’t pay any money. You didn’t pay any money. Nobody, including businesses, has paid a single cent to get access to social media.
But, payment was made by all of us.
The payment came in the form of information. When you signed up for a social media account, you gave your information. For those of you who think you outwitted the system but not giving anything more than your name, if you have posted anything, you have made payment.
Social knows who you are and it learns more about who you are with every single post, like, share, and comment you make. They package up this data and use it to sell ads.
Like legacy media such as television, newspapers, magazines, and radio, social media companies make their money with ads.
For legacy media, it was about delivering a general demographic. The data that social media has makes legacy media look ancient.
Where legacy media might know that the audience is primarily white males between the ages of 18-34, social was able to fine-tune it. If you run an ad, you can now target white males between the ages of 24-30 that graduated from college, are interested in basketball, and live within 5 miles of a specific zip code.
If you haven’t realized it yet, you aren’t just a person who uses social media, you are the product. The more engaged you are, the more valuable you are to a social media network. Its ability to sell ads becomes easier because you are providing the data.
At the end of the day, social media networks depend on legacy ideas to make money. The ads that they serve up are on steroids but there are issues as Rand Fishkin has pointed out.
You may not pay money but you are paying a cost to access any social media network because they are private property.
Social Media Experiences Are All Different
Unlike the newspaper or the nightly news, social media allows you to create a customizable experience. You are who you follow.
We might both be marketers but our timelines won’t look the same. The things that I follow won’t be 100% the same as what you follow.
In essence, what you get out of social what you put into it. If you follow nobody but marketers, you’re going to get information and opinions on marketing. If you follow conspiracy theorists, you will be fed a steady diet of conspiracy theories.
But there is also something else in play and it’s something that the social media networks have control over. They create the algorithm that impacts what you see.
A few years ago, Facebook decided to deemphasize business pages. This had a major impact on businesses. Those who went all in on doing business on Facebook watched in horror as their businesses literally dissolved overnight. This was the cost of building a business on rented land and then waking up to find that Facebook had changed the rules on them.
To this day, Facebook continues to deemphasize business pages in their algorithm. For businesses, it means that Facebook is a paid channel. If you want people to see your business, you have to run an ad.
For individuals on the platform, the algorithm impacts what you see as well. You’re less likely to find some things on your own for no other reason than the algorithm is preventing it.
Going back to the Facebook business pages example, Facebook’s intent was that people would engage more with friends and less with businesses. They made choice because they felt it was in the best interest of their company and it impacted you.
But your own behavior also impacts the information you see.
If we both follow the same 100 accounts, I would still have a different timeline than you based on what I engage with the most.
Timelines are like fingerprints. There are no two that are exactly the same. The ramification is that there isn’t just one version of the social media network that you and I can see in exactly the same way.
The Bigger Picture
What is our role in social media? I’m not just posing this question to you as an individual who uses social media. The question ties into your role and your business’s role.
I’d like to paint you a simple picture but, as I’ve already talked about, our relationship with social media is more complex.
While you and I might use it for good, there are plenty of people who don’t.
I’m sure, like me, you’ve been able to connect to some pretty amazing people via social.
Maybe social media marketing has been an important component of your marketing and therefore for your business.
These are all great things but I do sometimes have a hard time knowing that the same social networks that have had positive impact in my life haven’t been acting in an ethical way.
If you run ads, there is also the realization that you are helping fund all the nasty things on social.
I’m not advocating that you dump social media or stop running ads. It would be like saying you can’t use a fork because your little brother stabbed himself in the hand with it.
Your role is to use social media in a responsible way. If you’re a marketer or in public relations (PR), it’s your role to advise your clients and/or your boss on how to use social media in a responsible way.
This comes down to understanding how the platforms work. Each platform has its own rules, its own nuances, and different ideas on how you use them. What do we know about the algorithm? How are ads being delivered? How are you behaving on social? What is an ethical way to use social?
These are all things that you and your company need to determine. The way you answer the questions above will determine what you do with it.
You have the capacity to do good or bad with it. You will also be subject to dealing with the ramifications of those choices. Some could build brand affinity and bring new business while others could create a PR issue.
Social media may seem personal but because it is so pervasive, it makes a large impact on a societal level.
Ultimately the question becomes, how are you going to use social media and deal with both the good and the bad?
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