Social media began in chat rooms and email chains. In most households, it started with dial-up access to services like AOL, each with its own built-in community. The idea that an individual could connect with someone else on the other side of the country, or the world, was not altogether foreign. But the idea that those connections could happen between strangers – and that one person could communicate with hundreds or thousands of others at once… that was a privilege once reserved only for businesses who could pay for air time on traditional media.
Today, we take it for granted that a single individual with something interesting to say can immediately transmit their message to millions of internet users around the world. With a lot less money than before, businesses can still pay for more exposure, but it took some time to figure out how to deal with the “social” part of social media.
We now understand that social media is a platform for engagement, conversation, and connection. Businesses small and large have learned how to leverage social media with transparency and humility. They’ve learned the differences between traditional advertising and social media marketing; that listening is just as important as sharing.
But as much as businesses have learned over the years, it seems like our government is just starting to crawl. We currently have a president who still seems used to the days of propaganda, when newspaper and television reporters could be easily swayed by media advertisers and stakeholders. The POTUS uses social media quite infamously, but his use resembles traditional advertising where the message used to be one-sided. However, now that he and his administration are seeing how easily other social media accounts can respond – or simply share their own information – there’s a mad scramble to shut it down or discredit anything that isn’t theirs.
The problem is, they’re late to the game. Businesses and individuals have established credibility for over a decade now. Authors, artists, scientists, restaurants, clothing brands, and home-grown photographers have built an audience of rabid fans from all over the world. In every small circle, the influencers who have earned their keep control the message. Social media is already so intricately and tightly bound that even the richest, most powerful person in the world couldn’t infiltrate all of it.
That is, not without playing by the rules.
Take Reddit, for example, a community of anonymous users posting content: the only way for content to rise to the top is for other users to “upvote” it. No one there cares who you are, what you’ve posted in the past, or how much money you have. What matters is that your content is relevant and interesting; and if so, it could be the foundation of a whole new internet trend or movement. (Except r/me_irl – they’ll upvote anything)
These rules aren’t quite so strict on sites like Facebook or Twitter, but in order to be a true influencer, the same concept still applies: your content has to be worthy of a virtual “upvote.” In other words, Donald Trump can say whatever he wants on Twitter, but even he is not immune to immediate feedback, fact-checking, and simply being ignored. In fact, he’s only the 57th most followed user on Twitter, behind several musicians, athletes, news sources he’s deemed as “fake,” and yes, Barack Obama (number 3 on the list).
So as we all sit around and wonder what’s happening to social media, it’s important to remember that there aren’t any real secrets to it… Every individual has a voice, every user can choose who to follow, and every influencer has to earn her or his own audience. That’s always been the case, and it was a hard lesson to learn for businesses. Now we get to watch while our government learns the same lesson.