Why you’re wrong about social media

The top stock image result for the word “wrong”.

First, I’m sorry about the title. It was clickbait, and there’s no getting around that. But with that now behind us, here’s why you’re wrong about social media:

Because you think it’s either really great, or really over-hyped.

Okay, I know some of you are thinking, “No, my opinion is more nuanced.” Well, to be honest, I didn’t think you’d click on the title. This was supposed to be for everyone else. Keep reading, though, there are a couple of good lines coming up.

We too often forget that, just as many things can be wrong at the same time, many things can be right at the same time, too.

In marketing over the past decade, this been most true about the power — or lack thereof — of social media.

But here’s the kicker and the sweet title-vindicating part: social media is both a business-making revolution, and an inane exercise for the self-absorbed.

It just depends on who’s using it.

Because, yes, every single one of Pepsi’s baffling misapprehensions of the cultural “room” was a waste of time and money.

But your local pastry shop can probably credit a lot of their business to their Facebook page or Instagram. Or, if it’s been around since ’07 or so, Twitter.

Connecting with an audience, small or large, with no upfront cost is a big deal! The drawback is that, as much as social media provides relatively enormous returns at the small scale, those returns diminish at a faster rate than any traditional form.

Getting the partial and brief attention of someone not in the mindset to make a purchase (say, while they’re browsing their Instagram feed on the bus) has a value, but it needs to be weighted on an appropriate scale.

Getting the entire focus of a person conditioned their whole life to watch two minutes of advertisements after every act break in a story they’ve given their full attention (like on TV while they’re watching TV) is just much more valuable. And that’s why it costs much, much more to reach people in that context.

That doesn’t mean that TV (or print, or radio, or billboards) is better than social media. Again, no more than any media is better than any other. They just have different uses and have different effects.

It turns out that social media is no more or less revolutionary than any other genuinely new medium. It’s just, and this is probably the hardest part to deal with, the only one you were alive to see created.

Maybe all those old people who kept saying it was overhyped stumbled upon that half-truth because they had seen other technologies emerge, blow up, and blend into this crazy media mix we call life.

Maybe you thought social media was the be-all and end-all because it’s the only one you were here to witness being born. The miracle of life catches us all off guard sometimes.

This is why, even though I’m of the social media generation, I’ve tried to keep my career focus much broader than that. Being known for “social media” will soon be like being known for being “really into FM radio”. It’s neat in a weird way, but it comes off as worldview limiting.

“But, but, but, social media connects people. It’s not one-to-one, or one-to-many, it’s many-to-many! Nothing like this has ever been done before!”

Yes, that’s why we gave it its own name instead of, like, “Billboards 2.” Social media exists because it’s revolutionary. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be anything at all. But again, that happens to be the bar that all media need to clear to be culturally important.

And social media is great, when it’s not spying on us, helping fascists organize, and chasing minorities off of the Internet. And TV is great when it’s not giving platforms to bigots and stoking the elderly, racist flame through 24 hour news channels.

All of these things can be true at the same time.

So maybe the next time someone tries to convince you that social media is your savior, give them the time you’d give someone trying to sell you on an overly blimp-heavy media plan.

Social media has changed the world. But no more than most other media did.

So maybe, in a weird and anticlimactic way, we’re all right about social media.