Saturday essay: It’s easy to hate social media, to truly make it work we need to learn to love it
It’s fashionable to be irrationally critical of social media. Almost every policy relating to social media serves to restrain, rather than nurture it. The image of online platforms, amongst politicos and policymakers, is often that it is nothing more than an inflammatory cesspit of trolls and creeps who debase every conversation with racist and sexist slurs, to the profit of psychopathic tech billionaires – and the detriment of democracies.
But despite its flaws (and there are many), social media is a lifeline for young people in need of a support network, social movements looking for supporters, and crucially businesses trying to reach customers.
Without social media, many businesses would struggle to reach an audience and collapse. It provides them with the lowest cost, most targeted form of marketing in history. It’s worth remembering the economic value and job creation potential of social media instead of celebrating politicians announcing a new “clamp down”.
91 per cent of US businesses use social media. More than 50 per cent of revenue across 14 major industries is generated by social sales, according to studies of advertising on LinkedIn. Even back in 2014, Deloitte estimated that Facebook enabled $227 billion of economic impact, and created 4.5 million jobs globally.
Whilst we debate the monopolistic power of Facebook, we have to remember that there are over 90 million small businesses on Facebook – many of which have no other cost-effective advertising method available to them.
As well as growing small businesses, it forces larger businesses to stay on their toes because it allows customers’ voices to be heard. Take for a recent example with British Airways: one user promoted the tweet “Don’t fly British Airways. Their customer service is horrendous.” With only a few thousand dollars behind the sponsored post, the tweet triggered a PR campaign worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – and significant changes to customer service.
This level of customer service is far superior to slow, anonymous call centers. 80 per cent of consumers are more likely to purchase from a brand when they have a positive, personal experience on social media.
But it is small businesses, including micro businesses, who have benefited most. Social media has irreversibly lowered the barriers of entry to creating a profitable business. In the past, the only way to advertise would have been through extremely expensive newspaper spreads, television or radio ads – which may not even reach the target audience, meaning that only larger businesses with deeper pockets and speculative advertising.
At the beginning of this year, Facebook had 2.6 billion users – approximately a quarter of the global population. Any business can target their customers and grow, perhaps with just a few hundred dollars.
Social media has fundamentally democratised advertising and the startup ecosystem. It is no coincidence that the sky-rocketing levels of social media penetration in Africa coincided with a record level of tech-start up investment and creation.
This, of course, is not without its pitfalls, and unrestrained harvesting of data is a hurdle we must challenge. Businesses can only sell to us cost-effectively if they have our data. This is not as scary as it sounds: all data is anonymised, we are all single integers in the database.
Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t actually care what you ate for breakfast, even if advertisers do. The problem lies in how this data is used. The Cambridge analytica scandal was a prime example of data harvesting used for anti-democratic motives. This is the real challenge for policymakers, not the market for data itself.
Beyond the business benefits is the fact that, from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter to Belarus, social media has been an essential part of social change and holding the powers that be to account. It was the video of the George Floyd murder, documented and circulated on social media, that triggered a worldwide racial justice movement.
The best way to understand the true value of social media is through the states that ban it. Iran, North Korea and Myanmar are not beacons of free speech or free enterprise. We should be proud that our societies and economies have chosen a different route.
Social media and Big Tech are far from perfect. Those firms ought to pay their fair share of tax, tighten up the flow of disinformation and be more transparent about their data policies. But we should be equally passionate about the social harms of sites like Facebook as we are about their economic and political benefits.
Even social media’s biggest critics don’t want to live in a world without it. And the millions of people whose jobs depend on it certainly don’t.