The Social Media Dilemma

Should your company use social media? Should you personally use social media? We have been wrestling with these questions for years.

As a small business, one of our biggest challenges is connecting with potential clients outside our network. We attend events, ask for referrals, and share advice through our email list. We also produce content on our podcast, our blog, and by writing books. Those efforts produce quality relationships that we greatly value. But we have difficulty scaling those efforts and grabbing the attention of people outside our network.

That’s where social media is alluring. With a good Twitter post or YouTube video we could potentially reach thousands of people who have never heard of us. The possibility of a viral Facebook update is tantalizing to say the least. A lot of people in one place, networked together. It seems like a marketer’s dream.

But the more we think about it, the more we wonder if it’s the right thing to do.

Social Media Is Not Healthy

Have you ever seen an article with this headline: "Experts Agree, Social Media is Great for You!" Of course not. Social media and online forums often bring out the worst in people, especially in relationships. A study from the University of Missouri found that "individuals who use Facebook excessively are far more likely to experience Facebook–related conflict with their romantic partners, which then may cause negative relationship outcomes including emotional and physical cheating, breakup and divorce."

Almost every study of social media has concluded it is not a healthy part of our lives. This Forbes article by Alice Walton lists 6 Ways Social Media Affects our Mental Health.

Guess what? None of them are good.

The only benefit of social media seems to be the ability to connect with people we don't usually come into contact with (including in emergencies).

The ability to find and share cool stuff is a benefit too. But how often have you drafted your goals for the year and one of them was, "Look at more cool social media posts"? Probably never.

Social Media is a Likely Accomplice to the Murder of Privacy

Unfortunately, whether on purpose or incidentally, social media has also greatly contributed to the destruction of our privacy. We are encouraged to share our lives on social media, and people often share more than they should without knowing what the social media company is going to do with that information.

On top of that, the rise of big data advertising means every user's inputs are scanned and categorized, then offered up as a means to sell them more stuff, usually without any blatant warning of what is happening. It's automatic.

When Ashkan Soltani, an online privacy research and consultant, analyzed ‘third-party tracking beacons’ on 50 of the most-visited sites, they dumped an average 64 tracking technologies (i.e. cookies and web bugs) onto users’ computers.

The above quote is from an article on Seeker.com titled Is the Internet Destroying Privacy.

All of the primary social media sites are in the top 50 most-visited sites, and it's not just the top 50 sites that are doing this.

Furthermore, let's play the conspiracy theorist for a minute. Are we really so naive to think that governments aren't tapping into as much of this information as they can? Just one look at the revelations revealed by Edward Snowden and we can probably do away with the word "theorist" in the first sentence of this paragraph.

Increasingly it seems like “our" data is not ours unless it is explicitly protected by a verified open-source program that encrypts all of it and shares none of it.

Current social media sites do not measure up to this standard. The logical conclusion is privacy is dead.

Social Media (and the internet overall) is Often Not a Reliable Source of Information

This one is a mixed bag, but it's important to note: You've heard of the term "fake news"? There's a reason it resonated so well with people.

The internet is amazing. But it's also chock full of an amazing amount of fake information, fake information that is often shared on social media. Wikipedia even has a page titled "Wikipedia is not a reliable source", yet people still reference its articles all the time.

That's the first rung of misinformation, simple alteration of text.

Have you seen the Deep Fake Videos? Check this out?

According to Summit News, scientists at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology “have been able to simplify ‘realistic neural talking head models’ which normally require a huge dataset of images to look genuine. The researchers created life-like talking heads with just a few images of a person and even in some cases just a single image.”

This is scary enough to be part of the social media dilemma.

On the other hand, we must admit the internet can serve as a superb vetting platform. People instinctually want the truth, and millions of self-appointed internet police love to expose fake stories and denigrate the source. But that doesn’t negate the fact that digital content can created and manipulated all too easily.

The Breakout Potential of Viral Content Does Not Usually Lead to Increased Revenue

Now let's talk about your business.

Marketing is an art form, not a science. Most companies don't know how to market themselves effectively, and probably don't know why they have social media pages. It seems normal now to have a page on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn where people can "follow" you and your activity.

The grand hope is that one of your clever posts are shared by your fans and reaches potential customers who were unaware of your superb products and services. Your clever post becomes a virus, appearing on millions of individual "walls" or "feeds", making you or your company famous for a few days. You earn credibility, get more followers, and more customers.

But that's rare, at best. As Jeremy Knauff writes on Spartan Media, "Going viral is a combination of hard work and luck".

For normal, honest content, posting on social media is like playing the lottery. If you don't already have a large following, your chances of posting something that goes viral is next to nothing. Your options for creating a piece of viral content are few:

  1. Capitalize on a big news story with a passionate reaction or insight.

  2. Get lucky with a post that is so insightful and new that people feel compelled to share.

  3. Post real news of something remarkable or astonishing that happened to you or your company, and post it as soon as possible after the event happened.

Even if you do exploit one of these rare and highly variable options, the chances of reaching enough people to make a difference to your bottom line is next to nothing. On average, you will make a tiny splash on your side of the pond and get a few new leads.

But let's say for the sake of argument that one of your posts does hit it big. You will get a ton of new followers, new traffic to your website, new leads, and new customers.

Have you succeeded? Did you win the game of social media? Perhaps. But it's temporary. Social media is all about the fresh and new. If you don't continue to put out new, quality content, people will quickly lose interest. A lot of them will even comb through your previous posts, find things they don't like, and start arguments with complete strangers they can't hear or see.

You can capitalize on your 15 minutes of fame, but the spark will fade fast. Jeremy Knauff hit the nail on the head, "success isn’t one event, it’s a culmination of all of the small things you do over a long period of time".

To have long-term success, you'll likely have to build your social media following slowly and deliberately. You can't count on the viral lottery ticket.

Outright Censorship on Social Media is Dangerously Orwellian and Can Hurt Your Business

This is a big problem for us. Even if you do have a great, popular post, it's potential can be cut to ribbons by censorship. All of the major tech companies are now censoring content according to their own arbitrary rules.

Every page of search results, every social media feed, every article you read is processed by Big Tech (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.) via algorithms or manually for acceptability under their standards. Then Big Tech filters out the things they don’t like, and serves up the remains. What’s more frightening is that they are actively lying about it.

Tech companies say their platforms promote free speech. They don’t. At least, not anymore, not in the true sense of the term.

Here's a few examples:

A great episode of the Joe Rogan podcast is #1258 featuring independent journalist Tim Pool. In the episode, Tim points out a handful of instances where Twitter policies seem to be idealogically motivated and challenges Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Twtter’s global lead for legal, policy, and trust and safety Vijaya Gadde, to explain the policies.

This is just a few of the many examples of users or content being censored on these global platforms.

You might say, "Well, so what, Jeff? MY company doesn't share stuff that could be censored. Why should we care? We're just a business. Besides, I'm glad they censored that stuff."

Unfortunately, you're wrong and you should care.

Here's why: You are connected to your company. Your company is composed of multiple individuals, each with their own worldview and opinions, each connected to your company. What if you and your team supports a particular ideology, completely legal, but unsavory to Big Tech? Boom. You, and by extension your company, can now be made virtually invisible on the internet. The reason? "Extreme views".

Nevermind truth. Nevermind public debate. The people who hold the power don't like your opinions. Begone.

This should scare everyone who uses these platforms. Perhaps this image of Martin Niemoller’s testimony is too harsh, but it’s relevant:

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Make no mistake, it is well within the rights of Facebook or Twitter to censor any content they want. They are a corporation, a business, beholden only to their shareholders, not their users.

But they dominate the social media landscape, so much of the public conversation is transmitted through their networks, and therefore they have tremendous power.

As a business, should we support the current power structure or look elsewhere?

I told you it was a dilemma.

Social Media is Not a Level Playing Field, it is Rigged in Favor of Established Media

This is worth noting. Let's say you don't get censored, you are creating "appropriate" content, and trying to build a following. Great!

There's only one problem: You probably still have to pay to play.

Take YouTube for example. A channel called Coffee Break published a video in May 2019 called What 40,000 Videos Tell Us About the Trending Tab:

The video dived into research by a computer science student at Glasgow University by the name of Mitchell Jolly. Jolly pulled and analyzed 6 months worth of YouTube trending data for 10 countries. Are you familiar with the Trending section of YouTube? It purports to show videos that are growing in recent popularity.

But that's not the case.

Instead, as Coffee Break explains, the Trending section is dominated by establishment media videos from major networks, like “news” clips and late night shows. It takes a lot more for an independent video to make it on the trending page.

We would be foolish to assume this is only happening on YouTube.

Even if your company happens to have a break out piece of content, it looks like the chips might be stacked against you. It’s demoralizing. If small businesses have to compete with the media juggernauts in an unfair playing field, then what’s the point? Unless you pay for advertising to promote your post, it seems unlikely to reach as much of your target audience as it would in a fair playing field.

The Solution? Either Quit Altogether, or Post Everywhere and Often

With all of these negative aspects it is hard to consider a realistic, healthy solution to The Social Media Dilemma. Considering all of the negative aspects of the institution, it seems counter-intuitive to continue using social media at all.

On a personal level, I hardly use social media. I have a Facebook account just so I can manage our company page. My LinkedIn account with 165 connections is the most robust page I have, but I rarely use that too except to share our content.

As a business, especially a small business, we are really struggling with whether to use social media or not. It's hard to neglect the power of the internet to make our voice heard. But we don't know if it's worth the effort.

I can only see three options for businesses:

  1. The Principled Refusal: Stop using social media completely and hope your target market will admire your ethical stance and gravitate to your values. A small example: Basecamp has gone Facebook-Free because they don’t like how cavalier Facebook has been with their data. This is honorable and I like it.

  2. The Bare Minimum: Keep your social media company pages. Post to them a few times a year but otherwise do nothing with them. Focus on other things, like delivering for your customers.

  3. The Social Media Strategist: Define a strategy for social media marketing and implement it religiously. Post everywhere and post often in order to get your name in front of the widest possible audience. Engage with people as much as possible, offer rewards and contests for followers, and share the best content you can come up with.

Basically you can go all in or do nothing with it, because a marginal effort just isn’t going to cut it.

What do you think? Am I over-analyzing the situation (I have a tendency to do that)? What is your company’s social media strategy?

Leave a comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.