Social media has been the second big Dot Com boom. Firms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, WordPress and the like have made fundamental changes to the way we share, form communities and communicate with each other. Often we hear phrases along the lines of “everything is now local” being used to explain how social media has challenged the tyranny of distance and delay that faces traditional media. But I think something far more interesting is at play.
It struck me that the way social media communities react are something of a macrocosm of a traditional village. For instance, trending topics on Twitter allow gossip to spread like wildfire, much like a game of Chinese whispers. Social community members will add their opinion to the fray, often without all the facts at their hands. Within hours you have an angry band of villagers armed with virtual pitchforks and fire ready to drive the perceived evil from their town.
Conversely, if someone does a good deed, the social community is moved to celebrate in a very public way – in effect walking down the main street and having everyone in town come up and shake your hand to say thank you. In a similar vein, when faced with stories of great sadness, the social community can pull together and donate vast amounts of time and money to assisting people in needs. This sort of approach to the concept of social media as a village community turns Kickstarter into the equivalent of someone new moving into town and the social community pops round with a heap of house warming gifts before the newcomer has even done anything.
Why is this? Maybe it’s not the “tyranny of distance and delay” of traditional media that’s causing us to flock to and form these social communities. Maybe we’re not simply searching for unfiltered information before it goes through Public Relations and media lenses.
What if our social communities are a reaction to the process of urbanisation in the Western world over the last century? There’s no doubting that humans are social creatures, but recent research suggests that social networks may help overcome the loneliness we’ve created with our modern, hectic, city based lifestyles. Perhaps social media is the tool we’ve been waiting for to help us reconnect to an inbuilt desire to belong and communicate with a community of people who we feel like we know because they share similar interests?
Ultimately that’s a question for researchers far more suitable than me to try and answer. It does, however, pose very interesting opportunities for those of us in the PR industry in terms of how we can be part of these communities. At the very least, it should indicate that the initial model of social media engagement used by organisations (and unfortunately still practiced very widely due to the ease of measuring it) of chasing more likes, shares and followers is dead.
Because face it, if you turn up in a new town, climb to the top of a roof and sing your own praises while throwing around free stuff – sure the locals are going to like you for a start, but eventually things will turn sour. The locals will expect you to always be giving things away, they’ll get tired of you running around town with your megaphone and they won’t actually bother to get to know you. You’ll turn into the global fast food chain that decimates the local Fish & Chips store and before long, there’ll be an angry mob at your door with burning torches and sharpened pitchforks.
Whereas if you arrive in town and take the time to talk with the people living there, ask them questions about themselves, answer their questions about you, and have genuine conversations with them, eventually you’ll become “one of the locals”.
You know what that means? When you’re in need, the social community will be there to help you out.