Social media is good, bad, and ugly—all at once.
It seems to be a sport to complain about social media.
Excessive screen time is destroying our youth. Social media algorithms are divisive and make us hate ourselves and each other. And Mark Zuckerberg is everything that’s wrong with the world—and a robot.
Sure, I get it. I’m not disputing that some criticisms contain streaks of truth. (Except perhaps for that part about The Zuck. Even if he is a computation, it’s not evident that a mighty AI overlord would be wrong about things.)
In short: Progress is challenging.
When I started my PR career in 2005, I resisted my introverted nature. From the barricades, I proclaimed one singular message to anyone willing to listen: our society’s digitalisation isn’t something we can afford to ignore.
Those days are long gone now, but there was a time when our present digital society wasn’t as apparent to everyone.
My professional contacts still remember my passion from those days, though. I guess I doubled down on my message back then.
As a result, many of my business acquaintances are surprised when they hear me discuss social media from a critical perspective. “Wait, Jerry, I thought you loved everything digital?!”
To be clear, I’m not blaming anyone but myself for manifesting this general perception. I did tell hundreds of organisations to adapt to digital-first. My message wasn’t exactly gentle; I gave them an ultimatum—adapt or die.
Does this mean that I love everything about social media? Does this mean that I love algorithms and filter bubbles? Does this mean that I love … the Zuck-bot?
I’m still a PR professional, goddammit.
My job is to help organisations negotiate various media channels. My job is to protect organisations when the media is getting things wrong (which happens all time, by the way).
Case in point: I think journalism is essential for democracy, but that doesn’t mean journalists always get things right. They don’t.
It’s not rational to convince yourself that journalists are either saints or sinners. Clinging to such simplistic dichotomies is a poor business mindset.
So, why convince yourself that social media must be altruistic or malicious? That, too, is a poor business mindset. It’s just your personal bias on the matter getting in the way.
Don’t get mad.
And skip the drama, please.
I don’t love it when journalists get things wrong.
I don’t love it when social media gets things wrong.
And PR scholars should take a balanced view, too.
“Scholarship in public relations seems to be overly positive about social media. The dominant discourse in public relations is that using social media is ‘good’, because social media can help organizations in developing dialogs and relationships with publics and in engaging with them. Yet empirical evidence in public relations is mostly case-dependent and limited to the realm of understanding current organizational practices, with limited understanding of the concrete value for organizations or for publics. In this paper I question the utility of social media for publics, organizations and public relations, and I argue that the positive view of social media held by the majority of public relations scholars is grounded on the profession’s need to reconcile the two sides of public relations identity—the rhetorical and the relational. A discussion of whether current public relations practices in social media reflect these two main identities is offered, as well as a discussion of the implications of uncritical use of social media for the public relations profession.”
Source: Public Relations Review
I’m only advising organisations to stop complaining and deal with whatever is in front of them. I was back then, and I am now.
Because guess what? The playing field is the same for everyone. There are going to be winners and losers. Some will figure things out, and some won’t. Information technology is a rising tide, and while it’s not a law of nature, it’s a law of modern civilisation.
Clay Shirky said, “There is no information overload, only filter failure.”
Today, we can say, “There is no evil technology, only poor use cases.”
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not evident that Facebook, TikTok, or any social network are trying to enslave our minds or mould us into passive, mindless consumers. They thrive on their users being active, after all.
So, stop complaining and get busy winning instead. This is also what I tell friends and family who feel like “algorithm victims.” And what I tell parents who hate their children’s smartphones, pads, and gaming stations.
A contrarian analysis would suggest that social networks are highly efficient service providers. Too efficient at times.
So, the problem isn’t that these social networks are bad. The problem is that they’re too good at what they do. And this is what sometimes gets ugly.