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A growing crisis in exchange of value

August 5, 2015
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“This is the “supersize me” moment for social media platforms.”

By Mike Abel

Most worthwhile relationships in life boil down at some point, to feeling valued – usually as a result of a fair exchange of value, which often includes the need to feel validated.

It’s part of the human condition and primal.

Parents of a newborn baby melt with that first smile “I see you”, the words “mamma or dada” make us forget sleepless nights, pooh nappies and sore nipples from breast-feeding. We love them and they love us. Your dog wagging its tail with excitement at seeing you or a cat rubbing up against your leg. The first smile from the receptionist as you arrive at work, to literally every note or email ending with “best, yours sincerely, love or kind regards” – we like, no, we need, acknowledgement and connection through verbal or behavioural communication.

And that’s how social media wormed its way unsuspectingly into our lives. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TripAdvisor and indeed most successful new-age online communication tools and even blogs recognize and exploit this via likes, tags, comments, upgrades, badges and shares.

I went onto Facebook because I could reconnect with all my old friends and family around the world. Much like an old Enid Blyton book, it was a happy place from another time. Birthdays, joys and sorrows we could share our pics, our news and connect. But today it’s quite different.

There is the old question of “how do you boil a frog?” – assuming you aren’t French and still wanted to.
The answer is “you turn the heat up so imperceptibly that by the time the water is boiling the frog is unaware it’s got hotter”. And somehow this analogy makes sense.

Over the past year or two this boiled frog (being me) hasn’t perceptibly noticed the changing nature of my social media engagements, behavior nor content being served. It’s been very subtle and I’ve been lulled and lured into a new world that I didn’t willingly sign up for. Just this week, I was targeted once too often by a suggested post or app, was drawn into a political debate, felt my blood pressure rise again and again over politics, hunting, war, religion – so I stood back suddenly and thought WTF – how did I end up here?

It’s well documented and nothing new that these mini tablets called mobile phones are “digital cocaine” and they are. We are all, in one way or another, now addicts. But it’s quite scary when you discover that you have travelled unwittingly to a new and decidedly lesser world without your obvious knowledge or permission.

They say that you get a dopamine rush or something like that when you are “validated” by some activity be it someone commenting on your Instagram pic, or how many views you got told about via your Linked-in mailer or Twitter notifying you of new followers. As my good friend, Gen X-er and business partner Jason Harrison said “we want brands to give us Hope-amine rather” – and therein lies that proverbial rub.

One of Shakespeare’s great lines given to Hamlet “to sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub”. And Facebook and the like are exactly like that today. We want it to be a “good dream” – to see great pics, share meaningful stories and moments yet so many brands, apps, media owners, ad agencies and marketers have lost sight of why people have elected to use these sites. To improve our lives – not to make us victims of Stockholm Syndrome that without our supposed dopamine fix we’ll feel lost.

That’s why the Gen Y’s are disengaging and looking elsewhere. They’re driven by easy change and immediate usefulness. They won’t hang around. For them, they don’t want “the rub” – they want a fulfilling experience.

I asked another one of my close friends, baby-boomer and business partner, Denise van der Westhuizen, an outspoken critic of my supposed (possibly actual – shh) addiction to social media. She puts it plainly “I want authentic relationships”.

And so I find myself having fallen asleep on a lilo just off the breaking waves of a sunny beach and having awoken far out on a stormy sea with no land in sight. There is no swimming back. There is simply the option to determine how best to remove myself from this position.

I don’t need TripAdvisor telling me how close I am to my next badge if I give another review. I only started giving reviews as I felt I needed to reciprocate other’s hard work and generosity of spirit. I can’t stand having to endorse other people’s skill because they’ve chosen to endorse mine. There is simply too much emotional blackmail, too many digital “carrots” and sometimes, exclusionary “sticks” out there today.

It’s a massive wake-up call for the Social Media Networks, media owners, brands and marketers. Don’t be lulled into this new world as it’s metastasized – look at the original drivers of real relationships, usefulness and authenticity to unlock that promise or need of “Hope-amine” as I see a big backlash on the horizon for these historically consumer-content driven worlds.

The audience will delete your app, Facebook (and the like) may be the third-largest population in the world, but its very easy to emigrate elsewhere, instantly, for free and without a visa. This is the “supersize me” moment for social media platforms – hopefully they’ll take it on the chin like McDonald’s did and learn – or they’ll go the way of the Tamagotchi.

Mike Abel is Chief Executive Partner of M&C Saatchi Abel.

 

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