This past week featured several new reports about the state of social media and the public’s disenchantment with sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The big survey from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News rounded up all the negativity here.
Generally, I agree. I don’t think social media is good for you. I don’t think it’s helping kids. I think it’s bad for the news cycle, since there are lots of instances of fake news that turn into memes and otherwise spread around the web and into the minds of those who don’t have much skill when it comes to vetting stories for accuracy.
The neuroscience stinks, too, with inattention, FOMO, amygdala enlargement, envy, greed, avarice, anger, trolling, and all the other psychological fallout. If what we feed our brain matters, social media “engagement” is like packing away deep fried Snickers bars while shooting up vials of high-fructose corn syrup. It feels good for a brief time but ends up wrecking the brain and producing nauseating experiences. Yack.
Social media, however, is merely an outgrowth of this thing we call the internet. At its core, social media is just a “walled garden” that allowed small groups of people to monetize what otherwise would have been an open public forum.
Twitter and Facebook rounded up the eyeballs into their garden, and they gathered up advertisers to pay for those eyeballs. Simple, classic “attention merchants” formula.
The “public forum” we call social media (run by the Silicon Valley giants) – currently 65% of internet traffic – existed previously in other iterations called AOL, GeoCities, Myspace, Friendster and so on. And before that, people would gather on digital bulletin boards (CompuServe) and in Usenet groups. Back then, however, there was no monopolistic or oligopolistic gatekeeper for advertising. Perhaps the lone gatekeeper back then (where the buck stopped) was the ISP or the dial-up service.
The Moneyed Garden
What did this walled garden model ultimately accomplish? It created the biggest, baddest advertising platform ever devised (yes, Google, too).
In 2018 (maybe earlier), the old model for this – publishing and TV/Radio – took notice. They were the sleeping giant. The social media platforms quietly and not-so-quietly stole their cheese.
Look no further than the ad breaks on CNN, Fox and MSNBC to see how significant that theft has been. You’ll see second rate, “as seen on TV” type products alongside the big pharma ads that take up most of the heavy lifting. Otherwise, no Coke, Apple, Samsung, Netflix, Google, McDonald’s or Nike.
It’s no wonder publishers like The Wall Street Journal and networks like NBC are now funding surveys to show the downside of social media. The strategy is unabashed counter-attack.
To media giants like CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC and CBS, social media control of advertising dollars represents the most significant existential threat to their business.
With a “follow the money” hat firmly on top of your head, you can see how and why these reports keep bubbling up. Don’t expect them to cease any time soon, either.
The networks and big publishers need to constantly attack social media companies in the court of public opinion as well as via government regulatory recommendations. There’s a limited pool of advertising dollars, and they’re trying to claw back some of that market they once dominated.
So what’s the recipe? Attack the behavior.
Show how consuming media via these different channels (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) is bad for your health. The non-social media giants are merely taking the focus off of themselves and placing it onto their competitor. They have the megaphone necessary to pull this off (even though the megaphone is smaller).
Never mind that for decades we were told by countless studies that TV was killing us. Hollywood and the big media giants were helping us “amuse ourselves to death” to borrow a phrase from Neil Postman’s classic book on the subject.
Again, I’m not saying social media isn’t bad. I think it’s a huge time suck and an enemy of sane minds. It’s a Snicker’s bar wrapped in bacon, dipped in opium, and regurgitated by our “friends.”
One final thought: The greatest trick social media pulled off relates to small business advertising. They convinced all kinds of micro-businesses, from mom and pop outfits to pipe-dream start-ups, to mimic the big advertisers and purchase ads on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al. Now any yoga mom with a special product (free range yoga mat, organic pony-tail holder, etc.) could buy a low-cost ad and dream of one day becoming a Nike (ironically, the brand she sees right along her new, beautifully crafted ad in the social media stream). This is, in a way, brilliant. Think of it in hindsight. Imagine being able to advertise your product right next to Proctor & Gamble soaps during the Thursday night line-ups of Cheers, Friends and Seinfeld! The ego reels.
And the joke is on the small business advertiser. The yoga mom doesn’t quite realize that nobody sees her ads due to Facebook’s intelligent machine learning and AI!