The place of social media within society is still a highly contentious issue. For its most ardent advocates it has become something of a deus ex machina for every societal ill. This view cropped up recently in Thomas Freedman’s article giving advice to incoming Secretary of State John Kerry. He suggests using social networks (read: social media) to deal with everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the negotiations with Iran over nuclear arms. Aside from the political naiveté of this piece which has been well laid out elsewhere, this is emblematic of this belief that social media is a “fix-it” tool. The political degeneration of the so-called “Facebook/Twitter Revolution” in Egypt demonstrates the fallacy of the belief that using Facebook or Twitter has any magical powers. Why should Facebook posts or Tweets matter to a domestic government? Sure it matters to the International Community- abuse can be reported and organizations such as Human Rights Watch can mount campaigns but this is independent of the process of actual political change. In the aftermath of the revolution, analysts revealed that the central utility of social media was its ability to rally people together. The fact that it took a mere 18 days is touted as a direct result of Social Media. Yet harken back to the fall of the Soviet Union- the communist government in Czechoslovakia fell in a mere 10 days. Please don’t get me wrong- my goal is not to minimize this achievement- and it would be completely false to say that social media didn’t play an important role. Rather it is to push back against the idea that social media is in and of itself as a game changer.
At this point you are probably asking why I am going to such lengths to hammer this home. It is because I believe that social media can be a game changer- but the power lies in its implementation. It is not enough to start a Facebook page or a Twitter account. What do 2,000 “likes” on your Page actually mean? So what that your hashtag went viral? One thing that a few journalists have discussed when talking about the Egypt revolution is the way that Social Media allowed for a sense of solidarity across state borders. This is actually very similar to what occurred during the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Students and activists were emboldened by stories of the East Germans and Poles standing up to their regimes. Social media is about dialogue- about engagement.
I believe much of the current confusion lies in the fact that everyone recognizes the power of social media as an idea but they fail to implement it as such. Instead it becomes an additional tool- and let’s be honest, often a rather disappointing tool. My mother-in-law works as a social justice minister and recently told me that the most “likes” she received on a post was from one that she quickly typed up as a heartfelt response to a tragedy that had occurred. She didn’t understand why that as opposed to her normal posts which were well thought out and included links to issues that needed attention, should receive more attention.
To make use of social media the first step is to recognize that it is more than another tool of communication. It is best approached in that way that one would approach understanding a foreign land. There are norms, a culture, and distinct institutions. Now here’s the ironic thing. Most likely you are already aware of all of this because you are an inhabitant of this land. As a user of a social media platform you have an instinct for what is acceptable and what is not. Stylistically you know that there is a difference between posting on Twitter and Facebook (and it is more than just the 140 character limitation). Moreover, you know that you are in different frames of mind when you are on Facebook versus Twitter versus LinkedIn versus Tumblr. It is time to ask yourself why you use social media in your private day-to-day life. Is it to keep it touch with family and friends? Is it to stay up to date with the latest news? Or is it simply to give yourself a mental break? Now think about what it would take to engage a user like you. What would you be attracted to? Why would you engage? As I wrote in my post on the Oreo versus Coke Chase campaign, a major difference between the two is that Oreo choose to enter into the humorous Twitter conversation during the blackout. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, was intent on creating its own conversation. Oreo engaged while Coca-Cola simply used social media as another marketing tool. To truly grasp the full potential of social media organizations must focus on facilitating engagement- and this will differ, sometimes radically, case by case.
The world of social media is exciting. It is a new frontier in many ways. In order to embrace this we must be willing to treat it as such and that will often mean throwing away the rule book and stepping out into the Great Unknown.