The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyPublic Affairs & LobbyingSocial Media—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Social Media — The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Social media isn't all bad; it's rather too good, which sometimes gets ugly.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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.

Higly detailed art of cyberpunk cowboy - Social Media
AI art. Prompt: “Highly detailed art of cyber­punk cowboy.”

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.

Do social media algorithms make you feel bad about your­self? Does most of the con­tent you’re exposed to seem point­less or dumb? Is no one inter­ested in the con­tent you share?

Don’t get mad.
Get smarter.
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.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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