Virality Uber Alles: What the Fetishization of Social Media Is Costing Us All

The media world's fetishization of social media has reached idol-worshipping proportions. Our media culture is locked in the Perpetual Now, constantly chasing ephemeral scoops that last only seconds and that most often don't matter in the first place, even for the brief moment that they're "exclusive."
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Going viral has gone viral. Social media have become the obsession of the media. It's all about social now: What are the latest social tools? How can a company increase its social reach? Are reporters devoting enough time to social? Less discussed -- or not at all -- is the value of the thing going viral. Doesn't matter -- as long as it's social. And viral!

The media world's fetishization of social media has reached idol-worshipping proportions. Media conference agendas are filled with panels devoted to social media and how to use social tools to amplify coverage, but you rarely see one discussing what that coverage should actually be about. As Wadah Khanfar, former Director General of Al Jazeera, told our editors when he visited our newsroom last week, "The lack of contextualization and prioritization in the U.S. media makes it harder to know what the most important story is at any given time."

Our media culture is locked in the Perpetual Now, constantly chasing ephemeral scoops that last only seconds and that most often don't matter in the first place, even for the brief moment that they're "exclusive." Like, for instance, the BREAKING NEWS!!! that Donald Trump was going to endorse a candidate for president last month. This was the jumping-off point for a great piece by HuffPost's Michael Calderone about the effect that social media have had on 2012 campaign coverage. "In a media landscape replete with Twitter, Facebook, personal blogs and myriad other digital, broadcast and print sources," he wrote, "nothing is too inconsequential to be made consequential. Political junkies, political operatives and political reporters consume most of this dross, and in this accelerated, 24/7 news cycle, a day feels like a week, with the afternoon's agreed-upon media narrative getting turned on its head by the evening's debate. Candidates rise, fall, and rise again, all choreographed to the rat-a-tat background noise of endless minutiae."

Of course, as Calderone notes, there's a "real disconnect" between the media, which are obsessed with the urgency of social-media-driven news, and the American people, who are actually "more concerned about the struggling economy and their livelihoods." Or, as Dan Balz of the Washington Post put it to Calderone, "you feel you're in this circular conversation with people who are slightly disconnected with the real America." And that's because the concerns of struggling Americans aren't likely to be a trending topic.

At the same time, there is plenty of media commentary about how devoid of substance much of the political debate has been so far, but little effort to actually do something about it by helping start a more substantive debate. There's no reason why the notion of the scoop can't be recalibrated to mean not just letting us know 10 seconds before everybody else whom Donald Trump is going to endorse but also giving us more understanding, more clarity, a brighter spotlight on solutions.

"We are in great haste," wrote Thoreau in 1854, "to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." And today, we are in great haste to celebrate something going viral, but seem completely unconcerned whether the thing that went viral added one iota of anything good -- including even just simple amusement -- to our lives. The truth is that sometimes it does, but very often it doesn't. It's not even a very complex question; the problem is that we seldom bother to ask the question before we dutifully hop on the algorithmic viral wave. We're treating virality as a good in and of itself, moving forward for the sake of moving. "Hey," someone might ask, "where are you going?" "I don't know -- but as long as I'm moving it doesn't matter!" Not a very effective way to end up in a better place.

Of course, I'm writing this sitting in the HuffPost newsroom, where we are as aggressive as any media outlet in using social media. Indeed, we were recently recognized as one of the three "most viral news sources" on Facebook and Twitter. But maybe because we've been doing "social" well for a while, I hope we're more likely to see it for what it is -- a tool -- than some in traditional media who fetishize it as a new magical feat they haven't yet mastered.

How many times is the discussion of a topic justified by the fact that it's "trending on Twitter"? And is it really meaningful that "sentiment on Twitter is breaking 80 to 1 against such-and-such"? And is something important to talk about because it has 3,000 Likes on Facebook?

In fact, trending on Twitter may not mean much of anything at all, except what dominates the conversation at that particular moment (10,000 tweets per second in the final three minutes of the Super Bowl, for example, or 10,901 tweets per second during Adele's Record of the Year win at the Grammys). But as Twitter's Rachael Horwitz wrote to me in an email, "Twitter's algorithm favors novelty over popularity."

Indeed, to further complicate the science of trending topics, a subject can be too popular to trend: In December of 2010, just after Julian Assange began releasing U.S. 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 that Twitter started treating WikiLeaks as the new normal.

The bottom line is that 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 that, "Twitter is not a triumph of tech; it's a triumph of humanity." That's what sites like Kickstarter and DonorsChoose are doing, leveraging the power of social media to crowdfund creative projects, or to help teachers fund many urgent classroom needs.

So, the question remains: as we adopt new and better ways to help people communicate, can we keep asking 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, as Grist's Jess Zimmerman reported in January, McDonald's tried a social marketing campaign recently 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. One #McDStory 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 in a Filet-O-Fish.

"See, no matter what some social media guru told you," concludes 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 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.

So, the road to social media hell is paved with well-intended hashtags -- as well as disingenuous or inauthentic ones.

Late last year, Qantas airlines launched a social media campaign asking people to tweet their thoughts about luxury air travel using the hashtag #quantasluxury. What they got instead was a lot of tweets about the labor fight the airline was having with its workers. As Alexandra Samuel wrote about the incident in the Harvard Business Review, "If all you've got is a social media marketing strategy, then you don't have a social media strategy at all."

Social media are a means, not an end. And going viral isn't "mission accomplished," regardless of what it was that went viral. As James DeJulio put it, "It seems that overnight, the viral video has become some sort of badge of honor within advertising communities. CMOs without them are beginning to feel like the only kid in second grade without a Cabbage Patch." Just google "how to make a video go viral" and you'll find a trove of tips on how to hit the sweet spot, along with reams of analysis on why this video lit up the Internet and why that one was dead on arrival.

Last week, NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski ascended to social media fame by tweeting from his stopped race car during a pause in the action at the Daytona 500. His photo of a fire on the track was retweeted more than 5,000 times; with a few taps of his iPhone, Keselowski tripled his Twitter followers. Even for non-NASCAR fans, the appeal was easy to understand: celebrity tweeter, unusual circumstances, the whiff of danger. The New York Times called it "just the latest episode in social media's evolution."

But what are we evolving toward? And what is the price we are paying by feeding the virality beast?

Fetishizing "social" 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 -- as well as the stories that entertain -- 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 over 5 million people have been without a job for half a year or more, or that millions of homeowners are still underwater. And just as easily, we can ignore all the great instances of compassion, ingenuity, and innovation that are changing lives and communities.

"The campaigns can sort of distract reporters throughout the day by helping fuel these mini-stories, mini-controversies," said the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny. Mini-stories. Mini-controversies. Just the sort of Twitter-friendly morsels that many in the media think are best-suited to the new social media landscape. But that conflates the form with the substance, and we miss the desperate need for more than snackable, here-now-gone-in-15-minutes scoops. So we end up with a system in which the media are being willingly led by the campaigns away from the issues that matter and the solutions that will actually make a difference in people's lives.

Someday, historians will likely look back at this virality-uber-alles age and wonder what we were trying to accomplish. The answer will be: not a whole hell of a lot. Our times demand a much better response. All these new social tools can help us bear witness more powerfully or they can help us be distracted more obsessively.

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