Should social media scare us?

Do you dare pin your colours to the mast?

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris, social media has also been in the news. Inevitably its duality as both medium and message is under scrutiny. Facebook added an optional Tricolore you could add to a profile pic.

Publish and be damned! Social media takes care of that

One of the most significant changes regarding how we communicate in these early years of the twenty first century is the fact we broadcast into the ether. We have no guarantee who is going to read the message and how they might react. The 1st Duke of Wellington got it right when he said ‘Publish and be damned!’ Who knows what offence might be taken and what happens next?

Less haste more speed

In the past many media messages came from print media and television. It was more measured, slower. The editing process took longer, pressure to broadcast now, now, now was less dramatic. By choosing a radio or television station, newspaper or magazine we would buy into a perspective or hegemony. Readers were a group, tribe or clan and would often receive the message to consolidate things they already thought; it was an affirmation.

Perhaps people subconsciously still expect a grand narrative within social media?

– something that characterizes the past. Perhaps simplicity, or looking for a universal truth we can all subscribe to will make sense of a complex world?

Yet today social media has totally transformed the message

It’s immediacy, multi-stranded narratives publishes ‘the view from here’ and has become an essential tool in news gathering.

Ironically, it appears that tech actually makes us more ego centred

Each one of us looks at the world through our own narrative arch. Our nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class and location affects the way we react to information.

If we consider context is 99% of meaning too then social media will inevitably distort the message. Twitter is an 140 character (or fewer) update that says: ‘This is what is happening right now!’ but fails to add ‘as far as I can see from here.’

We reject anything that tries to speak for us

It’s interesting to note that French philosopher, sociologist and literary theorist, Lyotard, said back in 1984 that we are actually too sophisticated to accept the concept of a universal truth. Scepticism and mistrust of anything that speaks for us or tries to include all of us is out; we reject it in the main. We see this in targeted marketing and Seth Godin said much about the power of tribes in 2008

Universal truths? Are you kidding me?

Back to Lyotard. In his book, ‘The Post Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’ published in 1979 he wrote of our mistrust of metanarratives and their ‘totalising nature.’ He said: ‘We have rejected metanarratives and their reliance on some form of “transcendent and universal truth”. Simplifying to the extreme; I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives[. ..] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language[…] Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?’

What have Twitter and Facebook done?

You might say this is where Twitter and Facebook come in and their roles are to stir the hornets’ nest. On the one hand we can say it’s a good thing to reject grand narratives because in general as Foucault stated, they attempt to ‘construct grand theories that unduly dismiss the naturally existing chaos and disorder of the universe, the power of the individual event. ‘But they also ignore the heterogeneity or variety of human existence. Metanarratives are created and reinforced by power structures and are therefore untrustworthy.

Lyotard said ‘Replacing grand, universal narratives with small, local narratives means ‘metanarratives should give way to petits récits, or more modest and “localized” narratives, which can ‘throw off’ the grand narrative by bringing into focus the singular event.’

You might say that a characteristic of Postmodernism is the attempt to oust meta-narratives by using specific local contexts and of course human experience’s diversity. Therefore we create a “multiplicity of theoretical standpoint” rather than all-encompassing theories. Enter social media stage left.

Take Twitter as an example

We know it’s about breaking news. We understand it’s about rapid reaction, read 140 characters quickly and press ‘RT, like or comment’. After Paris millions of messages were published.

By the 16th November 2015 at 20.00 hrs UK time there were 3.3 million tweets with the hashtag Paris and 1.45million tweets with the hashtag ISIS. Topsy puts the overall figure at 10.7 million in the 24 hours immediately after the attacks.

That is a huge number of words, plenty of reaction, plenty of provocation and lots of inaccuracies. We have ‘the multiplicity of standpoints.’ So why are we finding this so hard to manage?

Social media lends itself to news, latest update, the ‘guess what’

And of course, ‘I’m the first in my social circle to know or discover this, how cool am I?’ behaviours. It encourages all of us to get the scoop. But how much damage do we do by our localized perspective? How many errors are just passed on to become the equivalent of urban myths?

A dramatic event such as Paris, November 2015 demonstrates the positives and negatives of social media

No one is suggesting the influence of social media is going to change any time soon. The important thing is to remember the context, what it is and how we need to use it. We cannot be shocked at the responses, furore, trolling and ‘hoohah’ tweets and updates can generate.

Do you read what you share on social media?

What would be really interesting is to compile stats to show just how many tweets are shared without being read. It’s a game of pass the parcel. CNBC have written at length about the rumours that spread during the Paris attacks.

In practical terms outwardly showing political allegiance will also cause criticism. FB allowed a temporary update where people could pin a tricolore over their profile pic. You might imagine this was a simple expression of solidarity and compassion. No. Newsthump the satirical website summed up the trend in their inimitable style.

Meta-narratives are no longer welcome here!

It’s worth thinking about post modern literary theory as we fumble our way through social media, learning in real time. Specific local context and the diversity of human experience have to be the topics of conversation for marketers and in education. Do not be surprised that meta-narratives are no longer welcome. We don’t need global or totalising cultural narrative schemas. We reject explanations of knowledge, epistemologies and the categorisation of experience – however many online polls try to tell us who we are!

In communication and strategic communication a master narrative (sic) or metanarrative are often embedded in specific cultures. We’ll have to get used to arguments like these.

This is a new cyber world we inhabit- we have no rules and who is going to be brave, imperialist or stupid enough to write a new set?

Vivienne Neale is a social media strategist, change manager and lecturer at the SoMe Academy

Further Reading

  • The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory & History of Literature)   1984 by Jean-Francois Lyotard (Author), G. Bennington (Translator), B. Massumi (Translator)
  • Godin, S . Tribes.We Need You to Lead Us Kindle 2008
  • Corman, S. R., Trethewey, A., & Goodall, H. L.(Eds.). Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Strategic Communication to Combat Violent Extremism. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.[1]
  • Trethewey, A., Corman, S. R., & Goodall, H. L. (2009). Out of their heads and into their conversations: Countering extremist ideology.
  • Lukens-Bull, R. & Woodward, M. (2009). Israeli nukes versus Palestinian slingshots.
  • Corman, S. R. & Dooley, K. J. (2008). Strategic communication on a rugged landscape: Principles for finding the right message.
  • Hess, A. & Justus, Z. S. (2007). (Re)defining the long war: Toward a new vocabulary of international terrorism.
  • Woodward, M. (2007). Islam, pluralism and democracy.
  • Corman, S. R., Trethewey, A., & Goodall, H. L. (2007). A 21st century model for communication in the global war of ideas.
  • Justus, Z. S. & Hess, A. (2006). One Message for many audiences: Framing the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
  • Goodall, H. L., Trethewey, A., & McDonald, K. (2006). Strategic ambiguity, communication, and public diplomacy in an uncertain world: Principles and practices.
  • Corman, S. R., Hess, A., Justus, Z. S. (2006). Credibility on the war on terrorism.
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