[BLOG] Social Media School: Empowerment And Politics
So during this little hiatus I have been thinking about the teaching of Social Media for professional purposes- which was my last job and might become a thing I do from time to time. Social Media is a funny thing. As a new phenomenon it has people scrambling to come up with definitions and to describe how it functions and predict its impact. But this is a real game-changer, a paradigm shift if you will, and I don't think we can accurately predict yet what social media will do to humanity any more than medieval serfs could tell you what the long-term impact of mass literacy would be once the printing press was invented. We're all still groping along in the dark.
Philosophical musing aside, the core question that is always asked about social media when you teach it is a simple one: effectiveness. People and organizations want to know how to harness the powers of social media for their own uses. Usually that use is to tell people what to do, no matter how sweet and socially-conscious your intentions. This is politics at play. It all sounds very feasible until you embrace the fact that social media is driven by the social aspect of it more than the technology. That's when we have to admit things complex.
Traditional communications thinking is quite linear: you develop content or messaging, usually from an assumption that you are expert at what it is you want to say and that you are saying it to passive tabula raza recipients. You broadcast to your "target audience" (tabula raza, passive recipients) and sit back and monitor your impact. You then analyze what data you have, fix the problems, make new and improved content, broadcast, monitor your empty-headed little consumers, rinse, repeat. Very imperious in its approach. Social media? You can do that- in a sense that's what blogging does even if it allows for comments. However, mobilizing people through social media is a dastardly game for one simple reason: everyone is a politician. By virtue of the fact that fellow social media users are just as free as you to act upon you, the near-equal footing demands a whole new approach to politics. It demands... egalitarianism. This is revolutionary stuff.
We call it social because what a nice word 'social' is, you know, friendly. It masks the inherent power plays. When people are starting out a campaign and they ask how to get Likes on a Facebook page, what they are really asking is: how can I make lots of complete strangers come to my page and think I am cool enough to Like so that I can increase my social capital/influence by appearing to be a popular choice (and therefore a valid/authoritative one)? Same with hits on a blog, retweets and Followers. Playing the numbers game in social media gives the illusion of security and power: if lots of people are around me, I must be doing things right. Maybe you are, but then again maybe you are just the flavor of the month. That happens more often than we like to admit. And if almost no one reads your stuff, then it must be terrible right and nobody loves you? That might be the case, but then again you might be a wonderfully valuable niche commodity that is adored by true believers, connoisseurs and those with esoteric tastes.
Yet even this distinction is porous. Once you put something out there anyone can access it and use it. You might intend social media content for a particular group but it isn't exclusive*. Interested parties of any kind can join in the fun... or shut you down. Assuming you get it right and you manage to attract a community- for one must humbly beg for attention, no imperiousness allowed here- then how do you then convince them to do your bidding? In other words, how do you exercise the power of influence over them? Especially since your fellow citizens of the net not only consider themselves absolutely your equals if not your superiors, they are also your clients/consumers who can decide to abandon you at any moment.
Social media power is very fragile, everyone you are relating to is just as hip to the game as you are. You can't even speak on anyone's behalf: if they are online they will simply speak for their damn selves, thank you kindly. This precludes the comforts of traditional power: you can't always claim expertise, you must constantly beg for attention while staving off competition and challenges, and there is no such thing as a captive audience. To make things worse, it is time-bound: you can never work fast enough. Basically, it is survival of the fittest and wittiest, the most creative, and those who don't follow trends so much as make them.
None of which qualities matter if they are not supported by less tangible skills like some humility, longevity, acumen, craftsmanship and the willingness to remain a perpetual student. For all that it is democratic in nature, social media is ultimately as elitist as any other human endeavor. If you want to win, you have to learn to be good at it, exploit every advantage you have to the fullest and compensate for your weaknesses or just hide them. Basically, become a politician, and a damn good one at that.
If you got this far down the rant, high five and let me know your thoughts. Am going to end here for now but ultimately this is all supposed to be background thinking to support the eventual design of a social media for social change Master Class which I would love to co-run at least once in my life before becoming as obsolete as parchment :). Happy surfing.
*Target audiences don't exist, and I know it. Here's why: the internet was never designed to 'speak' to an African woman of indeterminate age (ahem) with feminist leanings and a fetish for Tanzanian politics, or any of the other million "minorities" it never considered during its design. And yet. So, don't sweat the audience thing. Ever.
Elsie Eyakuze blogs on The Mikocheni Report (www.mikochenireport.blogspot.com).
She is an independent consultant and writer.
This article was originally posted on East Africa Business Communities