Five Big Questions About Not-So-Social Media

What we took away from Social Media Week in the age of social media fatigue.

Picture a ballroom in midtown Manhattan packed with people paying $1200 a pop to learn how to connect, making less eye contact with each other than a bunch of perfect strangers on an office building elevator next door. Welcome, then, to the recent Social Media Week New York conference. Every forty minutes or so, people obediently exited and filed into different rooms to attend the talks they’d chosen, only to retreat to the halo of their smartphones between sessions, feverishly shooting out live updates.

This went on for three days!

At an annual event packed with media and tech professionals in a city that practically invented modern marketing communications, networking was nowhere in sight. Most people kept to themselves, looking withdrawn and preoccupied. The realization in the air was palpable: social media isn’t all that social.

Despite hate speech, harassment, addictive use and disinformation growing at an alarming pace on social platforms, talks tackling these issues head-on were few and far between. It was as if everyone wanted to avoid dealing with the underlying problems even though they were plain to see right there in the room. From site metrics to conversion rates, discussion topics were painfully tactical.

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad from last year did come up several times, mostly to commend social media’s ability to help cause-driven campaigns go viral. And here and there buzzwords like authenticity, transparency and community were thrown in for good measure. But of all the sessions, the ones that stuck didn’t have much to do with social media tactics at all. Instead, those speakers posed greater, more challenging questions about what it means to spend and organize our lives online. With that in mind, here are five big questions from 2019 Social Media Week that every engaged digital citizen should be asking:

1. If you could design a social platform, what would it look like?

Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn.com and the self-proclaimed Michael Bay of business (she likes “to blow shit up”), highlighted the social media paradox. Despite the opportunities and positive outcomes of participating in social media, our networks still propagate all types of -isms: sexism, racism, sizeism, ageism and more. Trolls gonna troll. Gallop encouraged each of us to imagine our own version of a social network and how it would be different, emphasizing the importance of creating room for productive dialog to overcome social divisions.

2. How can we build more communities IRL that inspire connection and belonging?

When Daybreaker co-founder and CEO Radha Agrawal turned 30, she realized she didn’t belong. Recognizing that social isolation is a growing epidemic, she founded Daybreaker to design real-life experiences around letting loose, socializing and activating DOSE — dopamine, oxycontin, serotonin and endorphins — or what Agrawal refers to as our “happy brain chemicals.” Agrawal kicked off her morning session by telling the room full of groggy attendees to stand up, turn to their neighbor and maintain eye contact for a full minute. The horror! Awkward as it was at the start, we came away feeling a little less isolated, with a genuine appreciation for the time we’d decided to spend together in meatspace.

3. How can online forums encourage self-reflection and productive offline discourse?

“Reddit confronts the asshole in all of us,” declared Reddit brand strategy head Will Cady. To his point, certain subreddits are repositories for some of the most honest, vulnerable discourse taking place online. One in particular, r/AmItheAsshole lets users post about an argument that’s been bothering them and narrate both sides of the story. Next, other forum members act as jury and decide if they were right, or the asshole, in the situation. Subreddits like r/ChangeMyView and r/AskTrumpSupporters prioritize conversation over argument, highlighting the role anonymity can play in minimizing egos and promoting open-mindedness.

4. Do we just want to keep our data private, or fight for the right to own it?

If you own your personal data as property, you have full legal recourse against anyone that decides to abuse it. Ex-Cambridge Analytica staffer turned whistleblower Brittany Kaiser stressed the benefits of building permission structures, traceability and monetization around personal data. She contrasted these ideas with the “data privacy” movement, which she criticized as fear-mongering. If we make it simple for people to know what they’re agreeing to, who their data is being shared with and how it’s going to be used, we’ll be one step closer to owning our data.

5. Should brands stop relying on social media platforms as intermediaries?

Social media is a symptom, not a tactic. As Seth Godin stated in his closing keynote, great brands don’t succeed because they’re good at social media but because they create something worth talking about. Godin proposed a radical idea: maybe brands should avoid depending on intermediaries like Facebook or Instagram to connect with the people who want to hear from them. UK-based beauty brand Lush recently decided to quit being active on social media out of the frustration of “fighting with algorithms and paying to appear in news-feeds.” Now they respond only to messages, comments, live chats, emails and calls from customers.


Our over-wired culture has finally caught up with us. Here we all sit, compulsively opening apps to rid them of tiny red dots and refreshing feeds to get an adrenaline fix. Increasingly questionable content is flung aimlessly at our screens to gauge responses and harvest our attention rather than to edify or engage. Somewhere between the infinite scrolling and the million open browser tabs, social media became our social life instead of complementing it. With the onset of tech fatigue and people increasingly questioning the role social media can play in their lives, brands looking to connect with audiences and make a difference must prepare for the pendulum to swing back. The revolution will not be posted.


This post was written by Shivani Gorle with thinking contributed by Brendan Crain. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.