Last week, I wrote about how our obsession with social media has reached idol-worshipping proportions. A week later, with the passing of Super Tuesday and the release of another iPad, the topic is still on my mind.
Fetishizing social media has become a major distraction, and we're clearly a country that loves to be distracted. Our job in the media is to use all the social tools at our disposal to tell the stories that matter, and to keep reminding ourselves that the tools are not the story.
When we become too obsessed with our closed, circular Twitter or Facebook ecosystem, we can easily forget that poverty is on the rise, or that downward mobility is trending upward, or that more than 5 million people have been without a job for half a year or more, or that millions of homeowners are still underwater, or that there's an epidemic in this country - a pill-for-every-ill culture that spends about $300 billion a year on prescription drugs, where 6 to 10 percent of Americans take sleeping pills and 11 percent of kids 12 and up are on antidepressants.
How many times is the discussion of a topic justified by the fact that it's "trending on Twitter"? Or that it's somehow meaningful that "sentiment on Twitter is breaking 80 to 1 against such-and-such." Or that "this must be an important thing to talk about because it has 3,000 likes on Facebook."
As Chris Menning writes on BuzzFeed, "Twitter trends favor novelty over popularity." And to further complicate the science of trending topics, a subject can be too popular to trend: In December 2010, just after Julian Assange began releasing US diplomatic cables, about 1 percent of all tweets (at the time, that would have been roughly a million tweets a day) were about Wikileaks, and yet #wikileaks trended so rarely that people accused Twitter of censorship. In fact, the opposite was true: There were too many tweets about Wikileaks, and they were so constant Twitter started treating Wikileaks as the new normal.
The bottom line is, you can use Twitter to talk obsessively about Justin Bieber (in 2010, an astonishing 3 percent of tweets worldwide were about the pint-size pop star) or you can use Twitter to bring to life Biz Stone's aspirational statement, "Twitter is not a triumph of technology; it's a triumph of humanity," as with organizations like Kickstarter and DonorsChoose. Or you can fight for your own social cause, like the residents of favelas in Brazil are doing right now, to keep their homes from being bulldozed to make way for the new Olympic Park.
I'm all for adopting any new and better ways to help people communicate, but the question remains: What is really being communicated? And what's the opportunity cost of what is not being communicated while we're all locked in the perpetual present chasing whatever is trending?
The fever isn't limited to the media. As Carolyn Everson, Facebook's VP of global marketing, put it: Marketers commonly tell their agencies and teams, "I need a little Facebook. I'll come up with a big idea, I'll do the typical 30 second spot, the print campaign, and by the way, give me a little Facebook."
These days every company is hungry to embrace social media and virality, even if they're not exactly sure what that means and even if they're not prepared to really deal with it once they've achieved it. For example, in January, McDonald's tried a social marketing campaign that backfired badly. The company asked people to use the hashtag "McDStories" and tweet about their experiences with McDonald's. The results weren't pretty. Among the #McDStories was a claim that McNuggets "contain dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foaming agent also used in caulks and sealants and Silly Putty"; another mentioned a live worm and a Fillet-O-Fish.
"See, no matter what some social media guru told you," writes Grist's Jess Zimmerman, "Twitter is not just a marketing amplification engine. It's a bunch of people, sharing things they think are worth sharing. Trying to start a McDonald's appreciation hashtag is like the smelly, creepy kid running a write-in campaign for Prom King - not gonna work, and probably gonna backfire. People don't start liking you just because you suggest a way to express their admiration."
Or as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg put it, "What it means to be social is if you want to talk to me, you have to listen to me as well." A lot of brands want to be social, but they don't want to listen, because much of what they're hearing is quite simply not to their liking, and, just as in relationships in the offline world, engaging with your customers or your readers in a transparent and authentic way is not all sweetness and light. So simply issuing a statement saying you're committed to listening isn't the same thing as listening.
And as in any human relationship, there is a dark side to intimacy.
Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.(c) 2012 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.