Looking back at social media in September

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Social media is rarely out of the news these days, and it seems that everyone in South Africa is climbing aboard the Twitter bandwagon. I thought I would look back at recent events and see what lessons can be drawn.

September has seen the #afrispam incident, which was reported on Memeburn by @andyhadfield. This was followed by a mindless Twitter Re-tweet campaign by @vodacom, inviting people to their iPhone 4 launch. Not to mention the @pigspotter storm in a teacup and the impending news shutdown from the conservative ANC government.

What lessons can be drawn from these examples?

Let’s start with a few observations:

  • People are social animals. They will naturally support their community in some way if they can. They will collaborate instead of wasting time watching TV. Clay Shirky in his book “Cognitive Surplus” explains the phenomenon quite clearly: people interact instead of vegetate. The Wikipedia project and other crowdsourced projects are evidence enough.
  • People find meaning operating in groups that are striving for a goal bigger than themselves. They are driven to make a contribution. Obviously not all goals are what we would call good goals. (Hijackers are people too.)
  • The internet has made it easy for people with common interests to find one another. They support their causes on social networking sites and blogs, they comment on the posts of others and through their followers on Twitter. They build pages on Wikipedia.

What does this mean for corporates?
While the Internet is the biggest crap generator ever invented, it is also the biggest crap detector. People don’t trust the spin from brands and they are not fooled.

I would have loved to go to the Vodacom iPhone 4 launch, or to win an iPhone 4 at the Afrihost relaunch. I did participate in the early part of the afrihost retweet campaign, but realised when the #afrispam reaction started that it was a serious disservice to my followers. They didn’t follow me to receive a third hand commercial message, let alone 300 or so commercial messages.

For those of you who don’t live in Gauteng, it is generally felt by those who live in “Jozi” that the Metro Police and many of its members have one goal. Revenue generation. Road safety, so the sentiment goes, does not figure that high in their priorities.

Enter Pigspotter. He has tapped into the popular discontent. People feel he is doing service for the community benefit, and getting revenge on their behalf. The community believes that, which is why he has such massive support. We can each make individual judgements on whether his actions are bad or not, but laws are the invention of society and society is judging that they are being badly applied.

If he is half careful he won’t be caught. It’s only his personal contact with the media that will give him away. Right now, he is just a tweeter, which could be based in Iceland or St Helena. The updates could be coming from anywhere and even if he was using a different medium he could easily just relocate his IP address to anywhere he likes.

Even if he is caught, his Twitter account would just keep going or someone else would pick up the cause.

Which brings me to #zamediafreedom, the hashtag covering Twitter posts which has become a rallying point against the assault on the South African public’s right to know.

The idea that one single entity can control thought by controlling the media is so “last Friday”. In the 21st Century, the media is not a printing press, or a radio station, it’s the connected crowd.
If there is something that a member of the crowd believes is in the interest of his community, he or she will get it out and there is almost no way of stopping that.

Remember the World War ll images of the French Resistance running clandestine printing presses to distribute news to their followers? They were under constant risk of discovery and had to hide radio transmitters under floorboards. Those days are gone forever – every citizen carries all the publishing technology he needs in his pocket.

What are the lessons?
• Don’t try to control the connected crowd. It’s futile.
• Don’t try to “BS” the connected crowd –they will find you out.
• Focus instead on getting your stuff together, because then the @pigspotter(s) of the world will be your fans, and will spread the word for you.

The characteristics of media have changed. The media is no longer a source of information, it is the site of co-ordination. Brands and governments who understand this will thrive in the next decade. Those who don’t will fail. It’s really as simple as that.

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