I’m sure by now you would have all seen The Social Dilemma (and if you haven’t, you must be hiding under a rock, or you’re not a serial social media addict like I am). A heads up this isn’t a comprehensive review, if that's what you are after JBuck has you covered. This blog isn’t even about social media. Bear with me on this, it’ll make sense shortly.
Now as most people have pointed out, we didn’t learn anything new from watching it. There isn’t a shocking revelation or a big cliffhanger (maybe this is a bit of a review?) but I still finished it reeling. I had a horrible sense of uneasiness.
What shook me? It wasn’t Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, illuminating the fact that “Russia didn’t hack Facebook; it simply used the platform.” Or Tim Kendall, the former President of Pinterest, citing the thing he’s most worried about in the “shortest time horizon is civil war”. Whilst these were intensely frightening moments, and I’ve definitely since considered how long I can last without Instagram, these call outs weren’t my main concern.
“The idea that … teens would be getting depressed when they don’t have enough likes … was nowhere on our radar,” Justin Rosenstein, former Google engineer and the co-creator of the “Like” button
It was at this point I went very quiet.
“You can’t, in practice, put the genie back in the bottle…At the end of the day, you’ve gotta grow revenue and usage quarter over quarter.” Alex Roetter, former Senior VP of Engineering at Twitter
Here was where I started to get uncomfortable.
”It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behaviour and perception that is the product.” Jaron Lenier, author of “10 Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media
And then this one hit me. I immediately wanted to resign and retrain as a firefighter (they only save cute koalas right?)
These moments throughout the documentary made me realise the likeness of these issues to our work. We have the ability to inflict the same adverse consequences unknowingly on people. Just like these platforms, we have a hefty responsibility that we often overlook, or as Justin Rosenstein puts it: ‘it is nowhere on our radar’. F***.
We are in the business of changing culture. For us culture is defined as the values, attitudes and behaviours of people. Over history, you can see where brands have succeeded at changing culture and the way we behave in it. Ford, Apple, Google are all examples of brands that massively influenced the world we live in.
But communication and media also have a long history of using its expertise to change culture, to negatively influence or even manipulate. Whether it's creating stereotypes, avoiding truth, bias filtered information or generally shaping our self-worth, our ability to influence and create culture change has consequences.
Just like those social media platforms, we as brand communicators were never intending to use this ability or expertise to inflict negativity. But it has.
Once I got over the shock of how our work can be just as guilty of harmful manipulation, I remembered the flip side. I’m a glass half full kind of person, but this flip still took the best part of the week. Brand communications is also uniquely positioned to make good change, and by the looks of 2020 so far, we need some positivity around here.
Purpose has become the new buzz word of the year and taken on very righteous/activist/saviour complex connotations. However, it doesn’t need to be about saving the world (although hats off to Patagonia and Ben & Jerrys for trying) because not everyone can, or has the right too.
What we can do is be aware of our influence as brands, as an industry and as communicators. Rather than changing the world, purpose should simply be about propelling the world forward, not backwards. Just like the social media platforms we have a responsibility to use our influence for good, not evil. Classic case of good vs. bad, Snow White vs. the witch, Luke vs. Darth Vadar or Biden vs. Trump.
That's why at Magnum & Co we work with brands on a mission. A mission is defined as a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling that someone believes is their duty to do. By ‘definition’, a mission is propelling the world forward. So for us, working with brands on a mission not only allows us to focus on the right problem and solution for each brand, but means we are always making a conscious decision to move brands and the people they influence forward with communications.
We’ve been working with Converse for a few years to build a community of young emerging leaders around the world. Instead of using influencers for their reach, Converse works to enable these young creatives progress with grants, education and money-can't-buy experiences. Their mission is to be the canvas for youth progress and they live and breathe this mission through working with the All Star community.
GoDaddy’s mission is to help small businesses succeed online, but rather than positioning their products as the solutions to all SMBs problems, they know there are much trickier and often more complicated issues they face once online and base their communications around ALL the ways to succeed.
So in the end I’ve come full circle. I finished ‘The Social Dilemma’ feeling uneasy and guilty about my ability to influence, but over the last few days I’ve come to remember that communication has the powerful ability to change a business and influence culture for good. We both have a responsibility and an opportunity to change culture for the better. And for me, that's really exciting.
Words by Planning & Insights Lead, Alycia Raco