17. SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION: THE CHANGING FACE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
As long ago as the fourth century BC, Aristotle observed that "man is, by nature, a social animal." It's no surprise then that so many of our most significant inventions - from the telegram in 1792 to the email in 1971 - have been in the pursuit of easier contact over great distances. Today's social media can be considered the logical successor of these world-changing innovations, but how will their impact continue to grow in the foreseeable future?
The internet explosion
The first social media (as we now understand it) dates back to 1997: Six Degrees. Although blogs based around user-generated content were already popular amongst early up-takers of the internet, Six Degrees went a step further by allowing individuals to sign up via email, make individual profiles and add friends to their network. With a peak of 3.5 million users, it collapsed after five years - yet strangely enough, the website has been preserved in all its early 2000s glory.
In the final days of Six Degrees, it must have been hard to imagine that an almost-identical platform would soon launch and manage to attract nearly 30% of the world's population within ten years. Facebook's dramatic rise could at least be partially attributed to being in the right place at the right time: between 2005 and 2019, the percentage of the global population with access to the internet leapt from 16.8% to 53.6%. Despite humble origins as a network for university students, Facebook soon filled every niche imaginable. Looking to quickly sell old furniture? There's a group for that. Suspicious that Bill Gates wants to use a COVID-19 vaccine to implant microchips in the public? There's plenty of groups for that too.
What not to do
At least in recent years, this contrast seems to have led to a sense of resignation, the feeling that social media is at the very least a 'necessary evil'. Even the smallest businesses try to have an online presence beyond their website as LinkedIn and Twitter (in particular) can be an enormous boost to brand recognition and relationships with customers. They're also an excellent way to ruin your name and burn your bridges if poorly executed.
Take, for instance, Amy's Baking Company Bakery Boutique & Bistro in Arizona. After swearing at customers in an appearance on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, the owners faced a backlash on Facebook and Reddit. Their response - a series of defensive, entirely capitalised posts with threats of legal action and invitations to resolve things 'man to man' - did nothing to enamour them to the public. The following day, they claimed to have been hacked and resumed insulting those who questioned this. The restaurant is no longer operating.
I've been managing CPLS's Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts for around 18 months now and I'm pleased to say that I haven't fallen into the trap of attempting to physically fight our followers. Instead, we try to follow 'the 80% rule' in which roughly a fifth of posts are used to promote our own work - such as a new article or conference trip - and the rest are used to share interesting insights from the community. For me personally, it's nice to keep up with the latest news when looking for articles to share. By promoting the results of our clients to our own audience, we also reinforce the idea that we're an active participant in the science and technology domain and are keeping up to date on trends and developments which may affect our assignments.
The next big thing
As for the future of social media, something which caught my eye is the suggestion by Valerie Sergienko of Konstruct Digital that social media platforms will move towards uniformity by removing likes and shares. This will make it harder for individuals and businesses to reach audiences without paying for targeted ads but could remove elements of herd mentality from people's reactions. It might also have an impact on the 'dopamine rush' aspect of social media, which I was surprised to feel when CPLS achieved 10,000 impressions on Twitter for an article we translated on the use of an energy tower at Pinkpop Festival. I can only imagine that this feeling motivates some of the stranger (mis)uses of social media by prominent figures, such as Donald Trump's uncaptioned photoshop of himself as Rocky Balboa or Elon Musk's assertion that aliens built the pyramids.
What's clear is that social media of some kind will be around for as long as humans are. History suggests, however, that change comes rapidly and most predictions on the long-term future will be far off the mark. After all, nobody wants to be the next Paul Krugman - in spite of winning the Nobel Prize in economics, he's still dogged by his 1998 quote that "by 2005, it will become clear that the internet's impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine."