The Power of Social Media
I love to think about the written word, and how what people are writing is a deep reflection of our cultural moment. That’s why I personally find my job in public relations to be so interesting. I feel like a practitioner of something that has up to this point for me been only a philosophical pursuit. PR pros strive to assess the cultural moment, gather and interact with impactful media, and find inventive ways to move and shape a human experience.
Social media is especially interesting as a medium to me for this reason. It supercharges the power of the written word. Here are some moments that really crystallize the power of social media for me:
The creation of new Internet memes is such a fascinating phenomenon. Every so often, something will capture the imagination of the Internet at large and become a meme. The mechanics of memes are incredibly interesting (so much so that it has become its own topic of literary study.)
A fantastic recent example is the Ken Bone meme. During the second presidential debate of 2016, a man in an eye-catching red sweater named Kenneth Bone asked the candidates a debate question. His name, his appearance, and his demeanor caught the attention of social media users. All of that, in addition to a widespread appeal made possible by his status as an undecided voter, meant instant Internet fame. It’s the kind of story that happens frequently, where people briefly have the full weight of the Internet thrust upon them. Brands have encountered it too, like when Beyonce recently thrust Red Lobster into the Internet limelight with her song “Formation.”
Ken Bone immediately began using his newfound social media fame. Most notably, he is now part of a sponsorship with IZOD that encourages people to vote in the 2016 election. That amount of Internet fame can be hard to handle though, and Ken has certainly made some mistakes along the way. He recently got in trouble for not following the FTC’s rules for sponsored social media posts. Additionally, he used his personal Reddit account to host an AMA, which allowed journalists to uncover some unflattering past comments.
Social media has been compared to the advent of the movable type printing press for the way it has made mass communication more egalitarian. Every single person now has the unfettered ability to make his or her voice widely heard. Brands and people can skip the “middle man” that is traditional media and take their message directly to their audiences.
A demonstration of this principle took place recently on the floor of the House of Representatives, when 170 lawmakers staged an old fashioned sit-in. The protest was an attempt to force a vote on gun control issues, in response to the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. House leaders decided not to allow C-SPAN cameras to cover the sit-in. In response to that refusal, the protestors took to social media and used Periscope and Facebook Live to broadcast their efforts.
The live video access allowed viewers to have a personal connection to the political process. And using these live social apps not only created a bigger, mobile viewership for their efforts, it also added to the story itself. In a protest largely about challenging the normal political system, the fact that these lawmakers were denied access to C-SPAN added yet another supporting element to their case.
The advent of crowdfunding is yet another area where we have seen social media move mountains. With the sheer amount of viewers possible via social channels, it is becoming common for organizations of all types to ask their followers directly for money rather than fundraising via more traditional methods. Instead of getting buy-in from venture capital sources, startups can raise capital by taking their ideas for innovative products directly to their potential customers. Charitable projects can also receive massive levels of funding, both for non-profits and to support individuals who have just fallen on hard times, and fans can financially support their favorite artists.
There are a lot of fantastic crowdfunding stories, but perhaps the most hilarious one involves potato salad. A man from Ohio named Zack “Danger” Brown jokingly created a Kickstarter campaign to raise $10 to support his endeavor to make potato salad. The Internet obviously appreciated the joke, because nearly 7,000 backers donated over $55K to the campaign. Zack threw a giant party for his backers, which he dubbed “Potato Stock”, where he made potato salad for all and gave the proceeds to charity.
Social media is not just being used to operate outside the existing media structure, but also to hold the system itself accountable. When people feel that their story is being suppressed, or just not being properly represented, they can turn to social to tell their side of the story. Both candidates in the 2016 election have illustrated this point. Donald Trump, who has been very vocally distrustful of the media, has begun broadcasting his own event coverage and commentary via his Facebook Live channel. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has created multimedia content meant to be shared via social media, like this database which chooses a random date and compares what the two candidates were doing at the time.
Using social media to “fight the power” in this way is a practice that has also been especially present in recent conversations about race and policing. Cell phone videos of police shootings, largely of unarmed black men, have created periodic social media frenzies during the past few years. Eyewitnesses can now document these incidents themselves, rather than relying on journalists and news outlets to do so. The death of Philando Castile, captured by his girlfriend via Facebook Live, is a particularly impactful example. No matter what side of the issue you fall on, these first hand glimpses at police interactions make for far less hypothetical conversations about the issue than were possible before the advent of social media.