Using Social Networks to Build Belief
In 2020, almost twice as many people logged onto Reddit as subscribed to a newspaper. The number of people who use one of the Meta Platforms now exceeds those that watch any live televised program. We now live in the era of social media dominance. What’s happening with our friends, our politics, and the major events of the world breaks there first. But after an initial period of optimism, social media today has generated something of a moral panic.
Meta’s recent congressional hearings have been overwhelmingly hostile. Ed Markey pointedly told Mark Zuckerberg, “Your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content, and preying on children and teens is over. Congress will be taking action.” The days in which congress upheld Facebook as a trailblazer of American innovation are distant memories to say the least. Today 64% of Americans have a negative view on social media’s impact on the country compared to only 10% with a positive view. We have blamed everything from democratic backsliding to the childhood obesity epidemic on the rise of social media. To understand how we got here, we need to take a longer view of history.
It is often hard to pinpoint why and when a broad societal change occurs and what effect it will have on the future. A famous historian often joked that if the middle class had been rising from the 11th century through the 1950s, as various historians had argued, its fortunes should have been so stratospheric that they could only be studied by astronomers. If we ask ourselves today when social media began to take over the world, we run into much the same problem. Some experts would argue that it was in 2005 with the launch of Facebook. Others would place it in the late 90s with the beginning of widespread use of the internet. The University of Miami writes that, “Social media’s birth dates back to the 24th of May, 1844, when the telegraph machine was invented.” Here at More Vang, we would argue that it began approximately 100,000 years ago around some campfire in East Africa.
From the moment humans mastered language, they have shared information, told stories, and expressed their viewpoints on how to govern the tribe or the country, largely through conversation with the people they knew. Everything from new farming techniques to the latest news was spread almost exclusively by social networks of people connected by occupational, family, or personal ties. This changed with the invention of the printing press a mere 500 years ago. Suddenly, people could transcribe and reproduce conversations, spreading ideas and opinions beyond one’s known and physical community. While these networks were slower and more geographically confined than those that exist over the internet today, they have always functioned more or less the same. The world has utilized social networks to both bring down tyrants and engage in paranoid witch hunts for a very long time.
Social media has never been an aberration. Gossip has always been the dominant form of communication. The much more recent spread of non-social media from the narrow confines of the elite to the masses with rising literacy and later broadcast technology is the more unusual phenomenon. More than a few intellectuals in the early 20th century saw the coming of radio and television as harbingers of authoritarianism. They believed that the ability of the government to share its narratives and propaganda directly with the masses would allow for a level of societal control that the kings of old could have never dreamed of. Yet their apocalyptic predictions did not come to pass in democratic countries. This is at least in part because mass media wasn’t able to displace social networks.
Even at the peak of mass media’s cultural relevance in the mid-20th century, no business believed that advertising alone was a better substitute for peer recommendations and personal relationships. The backbone of our civilization has always been the ability to utilize social networks to achieve both individual and collective aims. The civil rights movement, for example, was propelled by community networks built around churches. The internet just allows us to do this much faster.
Technological change always comes with some degree of turbulence. It takes societies a few decades to grapple with how to deal with unfamiliar problems. It is undoubtedly true that we will need to develop new laws and behaviors to adapt to the increasing speed of communication. However, looking back at history, the invention of tools that allowed us to connect and share information faster have consistently been a massive benefit. In our present dissatisfaction with the current internet-based social networks, we risk losing the opportunity they present. It has never been easier to build relationships and strong social networks around a common idea of community. It’s this ability to easily share our narratives and experiences that allows us to create beliefs in our ideas, our products, and our brands.
Ready to leverage your brand’s social network in your direct mail? We’ll help you turn your narrative and those of your customers into your most powerful marketing tool. Contact us to learn more.