Saturday Trial: It’s Easy To Hate Social Media, To Really Make It Work We Have To Learn To Love It
Irrational criticism of social media is all the rage. Almost all social media policies serve to restrict rather than feed them. The image of online platforms, among politicians and policy makers, is often that it is nothing more than an incendiary cesspool of trolls and creeps that debases every conversation with racist and sexist slurs, to the benefit of billionaires. tech psychopaths – and at the expense of democracies.
But despite their flaws (and there are many), social media is a lifeline for young people in need of a support network, social movements seeking support and, most importantly, businesses trying to reach customers.
Without social media, many businesses would struggle to reach an audience and collapse. It provides them with the cheapest and most targeted form of marketing in history. It’s worth remembering the economic value and job-creating potential of social media instead of celebrating politicians announcing a new ‘crackdown’.
91% of US businesses use social media. More than 50 percent of the revenues of 14 major industries are generated by social sales, according to studies of advertising on LinkedIn. Already in 2014, Deloitte estimated that Facebook had generated an economic impact of 227 billion dollars and created 4.5 million jobs worldwide.
As we debate the monopoly power of Facebook, we must remember that there are over 90 million small businesses on Facebook – many of which have no other profitable advertising method available to them.
In addition to growing small businesses, it forces large businesses to be on their toes as it allows customers’ voices to be heard. Let’s take a recent example with British Airways: a user promoted the tweet “Do not fly with British Airways. Their customer service is terrible. With just a few thousand dollars behind the sponsored post, the tweet sparked a public relations campaign worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – and significant changes in customer service.
This level of customer service is far superior to slow, anonymous call centers. 80% of consumers are more likely to buy from a brand when they have a positive personal experience on social media.
But it is small businesses, including micro-businesses, that have benefited the most. Social media has irreversibly lowered the barriers to entry to build a profitable business. In the past, the only way to advertise was to run articles in extremely expensive newspapers, TV or radio – which may not even reach the target audience, meaning that only large companies with deeper pockets and speculative advertising.
At the start of this year, Facebook had 2.6 billion users, or about a quarter of the world’s population. Any business can target its customers and grow, perhaps with just a few hundred dollars.
Social networks have fundamentally democratized advertising and the startup ecosystem. It is no coincidence that the dizzying levels of social media penetration in Africa have coincided with a record level of investment and creation of technology start-ups.
This, of course, is not without its pitfalls, and the frantic collection of data is a hurdle we must overcome. Businesses can only sell us profitably if they have our data. It’s not as scary as it sounds: all data is anonymized, we are all unique integers in the database.
Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t really care what you ate for breakfast, even though advertisers do. The problem lies in how this data is used. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a prime example of data collection being used for undemocratic purposes. This is the real challenge for policy makers, not the data market itself.
Beyond the business benefits is the fact that from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter to Belarus, social media has been a vital part of social change and empowerment of those in power. It was the video of George Floyd’s murder, documented and released on social media, that sparked a global race for racial justice.
The best way to understand the true value of social media is to go 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 our economies have chosen a different path.
Social media and Big Tech are far from perfect. These companies should pay their fair share of taxes, tighten the flow of disinformation, and be more transparent about their data policies. But we should be just as passionate about the social harms of sites like Facebook as we are about their economic and political benefits.
Even the biggest social media critics don’t want to live in a world without. And the millions of people whose jobs certainly don’t depend on it.