THE False Assumption About Social Media – That It’s Social

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Social media is…well…social. It’s about people talking with people. But what if the users of social media are really not interested in forging relationships, the way it’s ‘sposed to be? What does it mean if user’s “engagement” isn’t about interacting with each other? What if it’s primarily a one way broadcast medium — a soundbyte medium where most aren’t willing to put the effort in to actually communicate WITH rather than communicate to?

Well, that’s not the case, you say. But it is. And the way people actually use social media is quite different from how we’re all supposed to be using it. And it has profound implications, not just for the future and how we communicate, but for the present.

While we are told about how people are supposed to be using social media, it’s based on how they “could” use it. To forge relationships, to interact about products, services, and to learn from each other. And wouldn’t that be great. But it’s an assumption that doesn’t hold.

Evidence:

There is overwhelming evidence that people do not behave on social media the way they are supposed to. And so long as we refuse to recognize this, we will be wasting millions of dollars in creating ways to interact with our constituents, when, in fact, only a tiny majority of users actually WANT to interact with us. So, is there evidence that that is the case?

You bet.

Over the last few years, there have been many studies that look at whether content conveyed via social media actually provokes discussion WITH and between people. And they are fairly consistent. People aren’t doing it. For example, consider Twitter. Tweets have an effective life measured in hours. Any responses you might get from tweets occur within the first few hours. After that, the tweet is, for all intents and purposes, gone, invisible.

But even in those hours, are people interacting with you? No. The studies vary somewhat, but the general range of tweets responded to (receiving a response, being retweeted, is exceedingly low. The studies reveal that between 72% to 92% of tweets receive NO response whatsoever — no public response, and no retweets. Similar findings apply to content posted on Facebook. The overwhelming majority of updates never receive any responses.

While it may be true that VIEWS of social media content are there, there is no support for the idea that social media is about talking WITH. Reading, yes, as measured by views. But people are simply NOT interacting WITH, at least according to the research.

But the best evidence is your own experience, which we need to look at because social media platforms (apart from Twitter) do not disclose, or make it easy to research response rates.

First, let’s look at govloop itself. Despite govloop doing a phenomenal job at trying to generate discussion, what percentage of blog posts, comments, etc go completely unanswered? Choose any blog posts or stories here, and you’ll find the majority have zero comments, or at best, one or two. It’s hardly a situation where people are jumping in to dialogue, despite the stellar efforts of govloop staff. And, what percentage of the 50k members have actually posted comments? Only govloop has the numbers, but it’s certain that apart from the very high responders and commenters, not much is happening. That doesn’t mean govloop doesn’t work. There’s great content here. But what it does mean that even here, people aren’t generally INTERACTING.

But govloop isn’t alone, of course. In fact, it doesn’t matter where you go and what platform you look at — Facebook, LinkedIn, personal blogs, the same pattern holds. Take a look at the LinkedIn discussion groups, and count the number of posts that receive NO response at all. On Facebook, you’ll find that people will interact with already existing friends and family members — a close circle with small numbers, but when it comes to interacting person to person, it’s not happening.

Yes, The Exceptions

There are exceptions of course. A very few platforms DO generate discussion, and interaction. The superstars using social media have created some active followings, and there are even some discussions on govloop that have generated considerable conversation, although when you consider the 50k membership, even discussions that garner 40-100 comments, rare indeed, it’s pretty clear that people simply aren’t being social in the sense of talking WITH each other.

Companies on Facebook comprise some of the exceptions too. There are certainly companies, actively using Facebook, who are generating comments, but what’s interesting is they aren’t really about people interacting WITH each other, or even with the companies. Again, you’ll notice that even when there are lots of comments, most are left unresponded to by the company, and discussion is limited — a lot of brief comments, soundbytes, but conversation that goes beyond this, the type that forges real relationships, is, by and large absent.

The Future

I believe that towards the end of 2012, and in 2013, people and organizations using social media to create engagement, will realize that while one can keep people on a site (YouTube is a good example), what you cannot do is get people to form relationships with others, or the organization, if they really are not interested in doing so. And they simply are not, regardless of what social experts tell us what’s ‘sposed to be, and regardless of the name “social” media.

Sooner or later, people are going to start realizing, the idea of communicating WITH isn’t happening, and become tired and disappointed when their blog posts, their attempts to interact are largely ignored. Or, they’ll continue to believe their writing is “reaching” people simply because it’s “there”, and waste their time trying to communicate when all they will be doing is creating content that very few really read, and almost nobody responds to.

Companies and organizations are going to realize that what they have is a broadcast medium (which IS how most companies use it), and that the investment in social media simply doesn’t produce the kinds of results they wanted.

I expect that in late 2012 and in 2013, there will occur, a general disillusionment with social media as an interactive medium, as people finally twig to the fact that “engagement”, if it be measured by responses, isn’t very satisfying, and that the use of social media will contract.

I believe people are desperate for real social contact, for feeling understood, for combating the lonliness of our modern world, but I think people are also feeling, at least on a gut level, that social media relationships, such as they are, will not chase the isolation blues away Faced with posting and posting, and never receiving responses, they will move on.

In fact, they DO move on. Even on govloop. Need more evidence? Try adding existing members as friends by going through profiles of people with similar interests or in the same geographic location, and you’ll discover the same pattern that occurs on most social media platforms. Accounts are open. Attempts are made to converse in the hope of connection, but faced with little or no response, the accounts go inactive, some almost immediately, some a little later. That despite, the excellent greeters and welcomers govloop has.

The reality is “social media” isn’t very social if we look at it as people interacting WITH people. In a sense we are communicating with people who aren’t “there”, don’t respond even if they are “there”, and are not willing to put the time in to forge real relationships.

The assumption that people WILL communicate WITH is false. It’s always been false on social media. The only question is how people will react, whether they will even recognize nobody is interested in dialoguing with them beyond the basic soundbyte.

The implications for the future? Who knows. Agree? Disagree?

Robert Bacal
Robert began his career as an educator and trainer at the age of twenty (which is over 30 years ago!), as a teaching assistant at Concordia University. Since then he as trained teachers for the college and high school level, taught at several universities and trained thousands of employees and managers in customer service, conflict management and performance appraisal and performance management skills.

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