In 2010, social media was so simple. Your video was YouTube, Instagram was your pictures, Facebook told you whose children were going to school and Twitter was about your breaking news.
This version of social media – lets call it social media mark I – has changed without many of us realising it.
Today, it is so much more complicated. All of them are about video. All of them penalise links. All of them are keen on creating safer spaces away from the notion of the big Town Square.
Fast forward to today and what do we have? Video is everywhere. All of them have algorithms that select what we see rather than the order they were posted in. Increasingly, they are all selecting content from outside of our networks.
We are also less happy about having a public discussion on a public network. In social media mark 1, the Town Square was where all human life ideas and opinions are. But we are moving to safer spaces where like-minded people are.
Quietly, WhatsApp groups, Facebook groups and LinkedIn have emerged as places where people now are. Groups are self-selecting so if you want similar voices you can have them. Messenger is also very much a thing.
There are two reasons for this.
The first is online abuse and the second is TikTok.
But first, the early optimistic days.
The optimism of early social media
Back in 1999, early web adopters got together to figure out how the social web may work. Their work is contained in the Cluetrain Manifesto. This far sighted document describes how they thought the social web would work. It is the founding document of social media mark I.
In the manifesto, they described the human tone of voice that would work on the social web, that it would be a conversation and that online communities would be powerful. They wrote how hyperlinks would subvert hierarchy. That sharing links would be instant and powerful and we would no longer have to go through existing structures to reach people.
In 2008, the public sector had started to switch on to social media with local government leading the charge. Back then only Derbyshire County Council, Newcastle City Council and Devon County Council were using Twitter. I was at Walsall Council and we were the 4th. Those that were were often taking risks to do things we today expect from our public services. When Derbyshire’s Sarah Lay put election results on the council Facebook page she did so at considerable personal risk.
The connections between these early risk takers and door pushers were all first made through Twitter.
Then came Trump and Cambridge Analytica
Looking back, the inflection point was 2016.
Jon Ronson in his book ‘So You’ve Been Shamed Publicly’. Overnight, everything Lindsay Stone loved in life disappeared when the web lashed out at her for an ill-judged prank photograph in a cemetery. The human cost greatly outweighed the action. This was Town Square as mob.
But by the end of the book, Ronson discovered one shining truth. To be internet shamed you needed to feel shame. So, when Max Mosley was outed in a News of the World expose as taking part in a nazi-themed orgy with prostitutes he was indignant. It was an orgy with prostitutes, he confirmed. But it was not nazi-themed. Shamelessly, he took on the Murdoch title and won.
And Cambridge Analytica.
The company used personal data acquired through rule breaking to game Facebook and skew the 2016 Presidential campaign for Donald Trump. Allegations they also worked on the 2016 Brexit Leave campaign are unproven.
The algorithm was rewarding argument, bitterness and abuse. So, with print declining some newspapers pushed the envelope and prioritised divisive content. Clicks meant eyeballs. Eveballs meant ad revenue. They still do.
I remember thinking that the time that all this was not what the early promise of social media was for.
In the early days of public sector social media abuse was rare. People were largely just pleased to see you engaging in a space where they were. But things change.
If you work in public sector communications you are even likelier to see and be the subject of online abuse.
During the pandemic at three month intervals I ran a tracker survey of how people were faring in public sector comms. Just over 50 per cent said that they were seeing verbal abuse aimed at then organisation at least weekly, 14 per cent were seeing abuse aimed at named individuals weekly and five per cent received threats of violence in the same period.
I’m tired of talking to people who have been worn down by a drone that ranges from abuse to a background hum of microaggressions that chip away.
So where has all this taken us?
Anti social media
It’s taken us away from the Town Square.
There has been a race to create a Twitter competitor but I’ve a feeling they’re looking in the wrong place. We don’t want so much of that version of the social web, we want something far safer.
What is safer?
I’ve sometimes heard apps like WhatsApp, Messenger or Telegram as ‘anti-social media’. I see what they’re trying to say with that tag. I don’t agree with it. It is less about being anti-social in a trolling way and more about finding corners of the internet where people can more be themselves. It takes the danger laced serendipity of social media mark I and swaps it for something less unpredictable and more calmer.
But we haven’t divorced ourselves from the more helpful elements of social media mark I. Breaking news can emerge first on the social web although for calm context a trip to a trusted news source online is what 75 per cent of us do for our news.
Even TikTok is part of this trend. Find 100 TikTok users and the videos they’ll see will be 100 different streams.
The TikTok algorithm is framed around ‘interests’ not connections. So, if you like videos of dogs, mid-week recipes, places to go with children and cricket then the algorithm will find you out by what you swipe past and linger on. This is not the Town Square. It’s the cafe on the town square that serves exactly what you want.
In the UK, TikTok is in the top three of most favourite channels from everyone from aged 18 to 52, Ofcom say.
TikTok has changed socials mark I because it has subverted it. By subverting it it has proved successful and those are numbers that all the others want.
New developments in messaging
Scroll back through the announcements and developments and you’ll see so much activity around messaging.
So, the landscape changing WhatsApp Channel rollout which makes a potential mass audience tool available for the first time. That’s broadcast.
Instagram Broadcast is a tool to allow what they’re calling a message to many functionality. That’s broadcast, too. Also on Instagram, the messaging functionality allows for group chats where group lists, 250 to a group can be reached. That’s all broadcast.
None of these tools are yet in the API which can be used by third party tools. This means if you are a slave to Hootsuite then you’ll have to go off-piste in order to experiment with them.
Little remains of social media mark l but we’re still working out mark II
Today, little remains of the early version of social media. What used to be sorted for you by the time it was posted is now a highly-curated feed. Not just a curated feed based on your connections but one based on what the algorithm thinks you’ll like. Where TikTok went first by prioritising interests others have followed. Facebook, forever the magpie of others’ ideas are doing the same. They call this the Discovery Engine to make it sound like they invented it. This explains why you are seeing things in your timeline that you aren’t following and aren’t ads.
What social media mark II looks like
In the early days of social media evangelists would consider the word ‘broadcast’ a dirty word. This was now, we were told, what the future looks like. In a recent workshop where WhatsApp Channels was discussed the broadcast nature of the platform was welcomed.
“You mean,” one said, “Each message won’t have a queue of people telling us we’re f–king idiots?
“Where can I buy one?”
But this won’t be a move away from elements of what has come before. There is value in testing the temperature, breaking news, canvassing opinion going to where the eyeballs are. We just want space where people won’t shout all the time.
Conclusion: embrace change
What this means for public sector comms people is this. What felt like something set in stone is not. It has foundations of sand.
It will change.