We are social media
A view from Sue Unerman

We are social media

Is social media making the world better or worse?

This month Joe Media took on the big topic of whether social media is dividing us or bringing us together. 

As their chief strategy officer Will Hayward pointed out at the recent Social Media Week London conference, there’s been a huge stepchange in democratising news because of social.

News is no longer curated by a set of editors sitting in Fleet Street as it was last century.  We can all find out what’s going on all the time anywhere in the world.  This is a privilege and a burden at the same time.  To a greater or lesser extent, we learn about what’s going on from sources that confirm our existing biases – and it is arguable whether this is more or less true than in the pre-internet era. 

Alongside the democratisation of publishing has come much more visibility of hate and harrassment. 

Do these two trends go along together?  Most readers will applaud the openness of opinions and at the same time deplore the hatred.  Is one the necessary consequence of the other? 

Here’s Hayward’s important question: "In light of GamerGate, harassment of non-CIS gender white males online and general casual misogyny, has social media really had a positive impact on society?" 

The Fawcett Society doesn’t wholeheartedly agree that is has.  Fawcett – a UK based campaigning organisation for gender equality that has been around since before there was TV let alone the internet – has launched #ReclaimtheInternet, to combat the rise of cyber-bullying, revenge porn and online abuse.

On the other hand the internet has given a voice to communities that were previously silent.  Mums at the school gates for instance always have had strong opinions.  Now those opinions can’t be ignored thanks to sites like Mumsnet and Netmums. #Everydaysexism has given everyone an insight into harrassment calling out behaviour online but also in the real world that’s surely unacceptable by most people’s standards.  

A Demos survey a couple of years ago calculated that there are on average 9,000 misogynist tweets a day. Twitter’s verification tick has improved the experience online (to an extent.)  Bruce Daisley, EMEA Twitter supremo, says that he’d verify every Twitter user.  

Surely here Daisley has in fact pointed to the nub of the problem. The ability to disguise your identity online brings out unacceptable behaviour.  (Real character is how you behave when no one is watching.) 

Social media encounters are different from real life ones; at the same time both better and worse than face to face conversations. They are not an accurate reflection of each other.  A 2012 Harvard study found that in real life people use only about a third of personal conversations to talk about themselves (I’m sure we can all think of someone who stretches this stat, but this is on average).  Online that number jumps to over three-quarters.  Your ego more than doubles in size when you go online.  Part of the attraction is that it is all about you. 

What you get from this is a world that is twice as good as anyone’s good traits and more than twice as bad as the worst traits. 

In real life conversations we usually have to put our best selves forward.  Most people do that most of the time online too.  But, just as in the playground, you can find popularity through attacking those who are perceived to be weak.  If we’re online, we have a choice.  Will you be kind, will you be mean, or will you stand by and watch?  What’s the role of the tech titans?  To preserve freedom of speech or to moderate (censor) behaviour? Martha Lane-Fox said recently that we are at the inflexion point of the internet, its mid-life crisis.  Time to take a step back and think.  

We all have a choice because we are social media.

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer of MediaCom