Owning memories (tm) and stories (tm)

It’s a scene anyone in an ad agency will be familiar with. You’re sitting quietly at your desk working towards inbox zero when yet another email drops in to push that goal even further away.

It’s immediately more interesting than the IT notice you’d spent 5 minutes trying to distinguish between an FYI or something you actually needed to act on. So you find yourself reading an excited diatribe from a workmate about new feature X on social networking site Y than is sure to result in a lot of Z…

If it’s a quiet morning in the agency this kick starts a thread of reactions and opinions on what the feature means for the future of the site, culture and planet earth — if not further afield.

There’s the usual roster of reply archetypes, “this is the beginning of the end”, “this will be the making of them”, “trying it now!”, “ABC did it first.”, “oh yeah, saw that yesterday…” (that guy!)
Meanwhile on social network Y itself, the wider blogosphere, twitterverse and even the techy-end of the mainstream press — comments will abound about how this is the death of the network and users will threaten to quit in their droves.

*spoiler alert* They don’t.

Recent examples include Instagram shifting from a last-post-first stream of your follow’s photos to an algorithm that determines what you are most likely to respond to, Snapchat’s “memories” feature allowing you to post old photos rather than just what is happening right now, or every change to Facebook’s privacy settings ever.

Many of these strike at the heart of what we think the site is about. Or, like Instagram’s recent “stories” feature that mimic’s Snapchat’s similar functionality, they further expand the ubiquity of a service. Users are left wondering if they’ve committed their attention and content to a site that is becoming something they might not choose to take part in — if it wasn’t already so integrated into their life.

Which is the key to why these sites can make such fundamental changes — and why pundits of the “death of Y” type are invariably wrong. Even if Snapchat initially got traction for ‘disappearing photos of the moment’ that gave you permission to worry less about curating your life for a large network and more about sharing intimate moments with just a few — it’s managed to stretch into photos that persist, or selected photos from the past. Its heartland, the thing people turn to it for, is forever framed by how it came to be in the mass consciousness — not what it is now.

Good for some, less so for others — like ailing Twitter, whose featuritis ignores the problem that it never really had a common gravity for its user base.

As much as Instagram’s new “stories” feature seems to be copying directly from Snapchat’s playbook the audiences for the site it will be used in quite different ways due to the existing audience and entrenched beliefs and behaviours around the app.

It is an interesting portfolio play by the site’s owner Facebook — who could have endowed the mother-site with the feature but instead endowed it on an app that was closer to Snapchat in behaviours already.

All very interesting to those of us who follow social network changes for a living. But for consumers? Social media feels very different from the liberating-late 2000’s when it gave the public a way to break up with mass-media, create their own voice or find new, fresher, ones to follow.

Now many feel trapped by sites rather than empowered. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat et al have their memories (tm) and stories (tm) of their last decade locked up.

Threats to leave a site or engage in “digital detoxes” are attempts to regain a sense that they’re not dependant on these apps. Apps for which they have no real voice in determining how they evolve.

Arguments over who “owns” the stories feature that Instagram supposedly stole from Snapchat ignore the feeling consumers have — that, whatever the outcome, they don’t own their own actual stories.

Meanwhile back at the office, the opinion thread du jour has either descended into GIF banter or someone has decided enough distraction is enough and steers the conversation back to a billable job code by asking, “well…what does this mean for our client’s brands?”

The E word might even be uttered in the ask… “exploit”. Whether it is or it isn’t, that is the implication. Whatever this change is, there’s an opportunity for brands to take advantage of it to get a leg-up on the competition and receive more engagement from their followers. Oh, and if you do something cool with it first, well that’s what mid-tier awards are made of right?

But is immediately leaping to how brands can use a new feature the responsible thing to do?

At this stage in the evolution of major social sites they designing features to get more users, using more often — specifically to provide brands with more eyeballs. Or they are designing features to allow those same brands to get better engagement out of each eye pair.

So any change that raises the public’s ire (or the odd one they love) were more than likely done in the name of securing more dollars from brands. Rushing to “exploit” them is a short term way to best engage with your followers or to engender consumer loyalty.

A change to a social site or app is an opportunity for a brand to show its potential audience that it is there to be part of a community not simply to talk to one. Your advertising dollars are the only form of voting currency those outside a social network have. Listen to your audience, does a new feature work for them? Talk to your site representatives. Champion your followers’ needs. Be seen to be part of making a social app work for everyone, not just brands. Then sell them more crisps.

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