It's enough to make you stop and wonder: Is there something inherently wrong with social media? Is it bad for us? It it ... evil?
This isn't a new question. I've thought about it a lot over the years. My life and career are wrapped up in social media. I know it's sometimes tempting to dismiss social networks as time sucks ... or even threats to civilization. But this is too simplistic. The truth, I think, is much closer to an old adage:
The day after fire was invented, someone invented arson.
Social media, just like fire, is a technology. It's neither good nor evil. You can use it to bring warmth and light into your life. Or you can use it to burn, harm, and destroy.
For some people, social media is a valuable tool that brings together family and friends, raises awareness for social causes and gives us something to scroll through when we're bored. For others, it becomes a tool for exploitation, an unhealthy addiction, even a vehicle to spread hate and violence.
Ultimately, the impact is in our hands. Social media, as the name suggests, is just the medium--not the message.
The social paradox
Having said that, it's not hard to understand the haters. In some respects, social media has done a 180. In the beginning, it was about living out loud--an antidote to slick corporate messages and imagery pushed out over TV and in magazines. Facebook was revolutionary precisely because it was real--immediate and unfiltered. On Twitter, people really did share photos of their breakfast.
But that's changed. The gold standard in social media these days is something that's "Instagram-worthy." Instead of a raw look at real life, we get an impossibly beautiful and polished version of life--cropped, filtered ... largely fictitious. Even when it's our own face. The popular Facetune app, for example, makes it possible for anyone to airbrush their features to model-worthy perfection. (And, more often than not, these perfect people on Instagram are actually trying to sell us something.)
That same craving for fakeness and excess partly explains the prevalence of fake news and clickbait. As our news feeds get increasingly crowded, it's hard to resist gravitating to splashy, tabloid headlines, even when we sense something just doesn't add up. Fakeness is a lot like trans fat in that way--tempting but just empty calories; irresistible but ultimately damaging.
A real-ness revolt
But it's critical to remember social media isn't just that. And it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, it's not hard to see a countermovement afoot--a push to reclaim social media's roots. Snapchat started it. Disappearing pics gave people license to be real again. Silly lenses helped us let our hair down. Instead of worrying about projecting a personal brand, we actually started communicating.
Thankfully, other networks have begun to get the message, too. Facebook Live videos are proving so popular because you only get one take--no re-dos. Instagram Stories already has 250 million users in large part because it's a lot more interesting to watch an unedited video of someone than to look at a picture that's been Photoshopped to death.
Intimacy and authenticity are regaining a foothold. Especially among younger users, fake is out. Teens have taken to starting "finsta" accounts--friends-only Instagram profiles--so they can share a "less edited, less filtered version of their lives." The newfound popularity of the Minutiae app--which alerts users at a random time and challenges them to share a "mundane" picture of their actual surroundings--is another testament to this real-ness revolt.
Social media lessons for businesses
So, where does this leave all the companies today who rely on social media to connect with customers? To me, it's an early warning. Social media has grown into an invaluable business tool. (In fact, my company is built on that fact.) But treating social media as business as usual is a recipe for failure.
More than other channels, social media marketing requires creativity, reinvention and breaking rules. Because there are no gatekeepers, people are constantly pushing the limits and demanding more real-ness and more honesty. Businesses that have grown used to treating social media as just another mass marketing channel may have a rough road ahead.
The key, instead, is to find ways to reclaim social media's personal and human roots. Granted, doing this at scale isn't easy. But the more that businesses are able to share candid updates and connect with people on an individual level, the greater the impact that their messages will have. Getting actual employees on board--and even executives--can go a long way to breathing life back into dry corporate social media channels. Tracking "meaningful relationship moments"--not vanity metrics like Likes or RTs--is also a step in the right direction.
The alternative isn't pretty. A rebellion is brewing. Social media may be more prevalent than ever, but news streams today are as likely to be greeted with skepticism as with enthusiasm. Honesty, transparency and authenticity are re-emerging as the new standard. Anything less is playing with fire.