The Day Facebook Died (COM0011 – Blog Post #6)

I usually check my Twitter feed before I go to bed. I’m not really sure why I do it, other than out of habit. A few nights ago my feed was full of panic. It wasn’t over some natural disaster or act of terrorism… but rather because Facebook was down.

“It’s been down 20 minutes!” “30 minutes and still nothing, what’s going on?” As is the norm these days, the event spawned its own hashtag—#facebookdown. As the crisis wore on, more and more of the comments became self-deprecating. “How will I like what my friends are doing?” “How will I post pictures of my cat?” (Instagram, which Facebook owns, was also down.) Luckily both services were back after about an hour, and the world made sense again.

facebook-eye_2459156bAt first this was little more than a comical example of just how much we rely on social media, on how integrated it is in our daily lives. But then it got me thinking: how would our lives change if Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. were to suddenly disappear?

In Canada alone, 14 million people—that’s nearly half the country—log on to Facebook every single day. Most of them do it on their phones. Around the world, half a billion people are on Facebook. That’s a lot of people who would suddenly be without their newsfeed.

Of course, the impact would go far beyond people checking in on what their friends are doing. We’ve spent the past few months looking at the remarkable ways that social media has revolutionized how we interact with each other, from business to politics to social change.

Remarkably, despite the Web 2.0 revolution, there are still those who dismiss its impact. In response to a wave of online criticism earlier this month, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed social media as nothing more than “electronic graffiti.” That comment was roundly condemned, both online and offline.

The truth is, social media has revolutionized communication and self-expression. Sure, we can dismiss the lasted Instagram photo of what you made for dinner as frivolous—it certainly is. But it’s hard to dismiss the way social media has helped empower individuals and changed the way businesses operate. It’s helped us understand our world better and it’s even helped bring down dictators.

Which brings me back to my original question: what if all that were to suddenly disappear? I could probably do without checking my Twitter feed before bed. And I certainly do think that we could all use a little less time in front of a screen and a little more time outside, in the moment, or with loved ones. But to disappear completely? It’s hard to imagine.

I’ve heard of people giving up Facebook for Lent. Could you do the same? Could you resist the temptation to check in on social media for a while, or is it just too much a part of your life?

Democracy Comes to Social Media (COM0011 – Blog Post #5)

2015 is election time in Canada. Anyone who follows the back-and-forth in Ottawa already knows that this year’s campaign is gearing up to be one of the most exciting—and one of the longest—in recent memory. What’s emerging are very clear—and very different—visions for this country.

But most Canadians don’t follow the back-and-forth. Most Canadians find our politics boring at best and irrelevant at worst. Nearly 40% of Canadians didn’t bother to vote in the 2011 election. Explanations aside (that’s another topic for another blog), this time around, political parties will be looking for new ways to engage voters. They all know that the right combination of engagement and inspiration will be key to forming the next government.

BRITAIN-G8-SUMMIT-CANADA-PRESSEREnter social media. As Brad Lavigne recently wrote, the 2015 election will be the first election in our history to fully harness the power of social media. From recruiting volunteers and mobilizing supporters, this year—like never before—democracy is coming to your smart phone or tablet.

I worked a central campaign in the 2011 election and I don’t remember social media playing nearly the role it’s expected to this time. It was there, of course, and we used it regularly. But this time, it could be a difference-maker. We’ve already read in this course how Barack Obama’s campaigns have used social media in new and brilliant ways. It’s no surprise, then, that both the New Democrats and the Liberals have hired Obama’s social media experts for their own campaigns.

Social media isn’t a fad, either. It’s going to fundamentally change how parties fight elections. There was a time when reaching out to voters was timely and costly. Maybe it meant a pricey television ad. Maybe it meant holding a press conference and hoping that journalists write what you want them to write. Maybe it meant mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to go door-to-door. Now, in addition to all that, parties can reach millions of Canadians on Facebook and Twitter—directly and without filter—with little or no cost at all. And they can do it from their Ottawa offices.

Like advertisers, political parties will be able to use social media to paint a pretty accurate picture of Canadians. Where you are, who you are and what you care about are all there for the taking. As Lavigne writes, political parties will be able to use social media to reach out and engage in a very personalized way.

Of course, none of this is meant to replace traditional campaign tools. Instead, social media will supplement and enhance a party’s strengths and weaknesses. Parties will still need good ideas and messages that resonate. And they’ll still need to avoid costly missteps. Today, even the smallest mistake can go viral and make national headlines.

Considering the dismal voter turnout we have in Canada, I’m all for anything that engages. None of the problems that exist in our politics today can be fixed if Canadians don’t care—if they don’t demand better. So the question is, will social media make you more engaged in the 2015 federal election?

Social Media and Social Activism (COM0011 – Blog Post #4)

Throughout this course, we’ve read about various ways that social media has revolutionized the things we do every single day. Web 2.0 has empowered consumers like never before. Government 2.0 has empowered voters like never before. That got me thinking about how social media has impacted those who make social change.

Call it Activism 2.0.

1406329673711It wasn’t so long ago that anyone who wanted to get involved in a social issue or raise money for an issue had to find a way to seek out like-minded people. Maybe a community bulletin board or word-of-mouth. Then they had to organize everything from meetings to public information campaigns to fundraising drives. That could cost a lot of money and time. Even then, they were often limited to working with the people in their own community, or their own city.

Now many of those hurdles have been removed—allowing socially active people to spend more time on their cause. Want to find like-minded individuals interested in building a movement? They’re all over Twitter. They’ve got their own blogs and online networks. Social media is inherently about connecting individuals and enabling them to interact. And they don’t have to close to you, either. It’s as easy to collaborate with someone from Mumbai as it is someone from Montreal. Not only does that means access to a larger number of activists, it means access to a larger number of skill sets and expertise.

This is what the Obama campaign did so well in 2008. They used social media to connect and train grassroots activists in communities across the country. Then they empowered them to do the kind of grassroots work in their own communities that the national campaign never could. That created a massive movement that political campaigns have been trying to emulate ever since.

Activists can now use social media to educate the public in ways they never could before. In essence, they can now cut out the middleman—ad agencies, newspaper editors, etc, who are often expensive and have competing interests. Even a simple hashtag—#blacklivesmatter, #beenrapedneverreported—can shed light on an issue can keep it in the spotlight far longer than traditional forms of communications. In both these cases, the hashtags actually left social media and became part of the larger public discourse.

That works just as well for fundraising, too—a key component of any social campaign. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Red Cross appeals for donations on Twitter got retweeted a remarkable 2.3 million times in just 48 hours. It’s no wonder that the US alone managed to raise $200-million for relief efforts.

Think about the last issue you go involved in, or donated to. Was there a social media component to it? Would you have known about it or donated to it if not for social media?

The Best and Worst of 2014 (COM0011 Blog Post #3)

It’s a wonderful time of year: the holiday spirit, great food, friends, family… and of course, “best/worst of 2014” lists. I love these things. So in the spirit of the season, I thought I’d do my part by crowning the best and worst of social media in 2014.

The Best – The Ice Bucket Challenge

This one is easy. Somewhere in a boardroom, someone said to his or her colleagues, “hey, why don’t we ask people to dump buckets of ice water on their heads for charity.” With that, The Ice Bucket Challenge was born. In just a few months, the campaign raised an astonishing $100-million for ALS research. You’d had to of been living in a cave this summer to have missed it. Everyone from George W. Bush to your neighbour was dumping ice water buckets on their head. It was the perfect mix of crazy, great visuals and built-in viral capacity (challenging three friends to follow suit). From June 1 to September 1, Facebook users shared 17 million Ice Bucket Challenge videos—videos that were viewed an incredible 10 billion times. It raised a ton of money, a ton of awareness for ALS, and inspired social media campaigners everywhere.

Honourable mention – “Purple Your Profile” campaign

By asking people to make their Facebook profiles purple, Chevy managed to raise $1-million for the American Cancer Society—and even got other big brands like Lowes on board too. Their campaign started with a moving Super Bowl ad, and took off from there. As social media expert James Whatley notes, 2014 was the year of combining social media and traditional media. In fact, more than half of this year’s Super Bowl commercials prominently featured Twitter hashtags. Clearly, big advertisers are now seeing that you fail to harness the power of social media at your own peril.

The Worst – Tweeting from beyond the grave

It’s surprising to see Apple make the “worst” list. You’d think that their tech savvy would make them social media trendsetters. Clearly that’s what they were attempting to be when they solicited various celebrities to tweet about purchasing a new iPhone 6. One such celebrity was Joan Rivers—never shy with her opinions. The problem? Her pre-scheduled tweet was sent out AFTER she died. There are few better ways to scream inauthenticity than to have dead celebrities tweet “I just bought an iPhone!” I’m guessing someone was fired for that.

Dishonourable Mention – #cosbymeme

Simply put, if you’re going to ask millions of people to meme you, be sure you don’t have terrible skeletons in your closet.

What do you think? What were some of the best—and worst—social media campaigns of 2014?

Are we taking full advantage of social media? (COM0011 Blog Post #2)

We’ve read over and over that one of the greatest benefits of social media is the power it gives to individuals to access different viewpoints, different perspectives and experiences. Gone are the days when grumpy, cigar-smoking editors (think Spiderman) decided what the public knew about simply by deciding what got into the next day’s newspaper. Now, individuals can access an incredibly vast pool of information, almost instantly, with a few clicks of a mouse.

So we’re more empowered. But are we really using that new power?

ObamaspeechA new study by a pair of university professors casts some doubt. It found that, instead of giving people access to more viewpoints, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter most often act as an echo chamber for people to reinforce their pre-existing belief systems. It analyzed 90 million links and 500,000 tweets from the 2012 US elections and found that a remarkable 90% of the tweets that liberal voters saw came from Democrats and 90% of the tweets that conservatives saw came from Republicans. In other words, instead of talking to each other, the two sides were talking among themselves.

Now, it’s not all bad. The study also found that, despite the ever-expanding number of sources available on social media, most people still tend to read a variety of centrist viewpoints. But it does raise the question of just how social media reinforces or impacts what we already believe—and what that means for public discourse.

Another study, this one from 2012, found that intense media coverage had the effect of strengthening political polarization. Like the first study, it found that modern media coverage creates “belief gaps” where people tend to gravitate to what they already believe, instead of seeking out various viewpoints. That’s vastly different from 40 years ago, where media coverage was found to create “knowledge gaps.” While these findings weren’t specifically about social media, I think we can all safety assume that the trends would be the same.

So what’s the problem with this? It seems obvious that people would seek out similar viewpoints, doesn’t it? Think about your circle of friends, I bet the majority of them have a similar worldview. Conservatives are more likely to watch Fox and liberals are more likely to watch the CBC. That’s not new either. While I wouldn’t necessarily argue that there is a problem per se, these findings do raise the question of whether we are taking full advantage of social media, or if the hyper-partisanship of our world today is causing us to miss out on something. We’ve never had better, more direct access to a multitude of viewpoints. Are we letting that power pass us by?

Out of curiosity, I checked out my own Twitter feed. Sure enough, the majority of the people I follow are people I would “agree with.” The majority of the news sites I follow—while providing me with stories I’d never have access to—still reinforce my worldview. Of course, there are exceptions. It’s necessary for my job that I am in tune with many different viewpoints in Canada, so I do follow people and news organizations from all over the political spectrum. But I wonder if I still would if I didn’t have to.

How about your twitter feed? Check it out. Are you taking full advantage of social media, or sticking to old habits?

Don’t Shoot the Messenger (COM0011 – Blog Post #1)

We all know the power of social media. It’s why we’re taking this course. It’s why big companies and charities are all clamoring for the next ice bucket challenge. As we’ve read in our course material, social media gives individuals incredible power to talk to one other, and to shape public perception in a way they never could before. But what happens when those individuals are saying things we don’t want them to say?

A few weeks ago, Robert Hannigan, one of Britain’s highest ranking intelligence officers, called social media companies like Twitter and Facebook “command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals.” He went on to point the finger at companies like Apple for not doing enough to help law enforcement untangle their technology.

Every time a technology emerges quickly, it’s only a matter of time before it’s co-opted for purposes that we don’t want it to be used for. From criminal recruitment to online harassment and trolling, social media is no different in this respect. But what does make it different is that, unlike most technologies, the use of social media is closely linked to issues of freedom of speech.

The backlash against Mr. Hannigan’s comments was fast and furious. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook pointed out that governments who want to target criminals should do just that—target the criminals, not the technology they use. As one free speech advocate put it, “It’s not for the head of a powerful intelligence agency to wave his arms and expect citizens of a democracy to gladly give up their rights.”

It seems like sound advice. We all want to prevent groups like ISIS from recruiting and sharing their propaganda online, and we all know it’s a growing problem. The question is, what do we do about it? As the RCMP said after the Ottawa shooting, the police can’t arrest someone for something they say online (with the exception of hate speech, that is). And it’s not like social media companies are actively inhibiting police investigations: in the first six months of this year, Facebook received nearly 35,000 requests for data from law enforcement agencies around the world.

But it’s a slippery-slope to say that social media companies are responsible for policing content. Fighting terrorism may be an easy sell, but what’s next? We’ve all heard stories of Facebook removing pictures of breastfeeding women. And authoritarian governments intent on silencing critics have often taken to banning social media (see China, Turkey and Iran).

Censoring Twitter and Facebook is certainly easier than, say, organizing and enforcing a book ban. But it’s also more dangerous because of its scope. There’s no easy answer, but it seems to me that what happens on social media is simply a reflection of our society. If there’s things on there we find uncomfortable—and there are—we need to address those larger issues instead of simply attempting to hide what we don’t like. In other words, don’t shoot the messenger.