M-Theory: Let's make 'social' more sociable

Written by: Melanie Baker | 01 October 2021 | M-Theory, Opinion

Over the last while I’ve seen more people than usual expressing disillusionment with social media. Social platforms are always flaming dumpsters to some degree, but the recent election and ongoing COVID misinformation and such really don’t help with the quality of content and discourse. 

It’s becoming next to impossible to be able to assume good faith in interactions, even with people you thought you knew fairly well. This is bad enough one on one, but can be a spreading toxin for communities online. 

Who knows, maybe that solar superstorm will actually happen and knock out the internet and do us a favour. 

Companies aren’t really making it much better. Too many have a presence on social platforms that’s merely performative and doesn’t actually benefit anyone; it just ratchets up our cynicism. 

I also think the businesszone applies now more than ever. After the last few years our interpersonal relationships are oft-fraught and frayed. The last thing anyone has enthusiasm for is a company trying to get “authentic” with them in our social spaces. Try giving your workers an authentic raise instead.

However, at the same time, a thread of light and sanity still exists. I have seen people post in groups that I’m part of on social platforms how the group is the only safe place they have online. Or how seen or welcome they feel. Or when they post something perhaps quirky or niche or weird, how they know others will enjoy it, as we are their people. 

What’s also interesting is that some of these healthy, thriving communities are built around a brand. But not brands as you may think of them. Not corporate. Not celebrity, per se. We’re not rallying around the flagpoles of fast food or retailers or Beyoncé. These ones are more like… elevated personal brands.

Podcasts provide some great examples. There are a number of very popular podcasts that have spawned thriving and devoted communities. Whether you’re a fan of grisly murders or weird science or sports scandals or romance novels, there may well be a community for you with someone cool at the heart of it.

These communities are founded around the podcast’s brand, which tends to be largely the host’s or hosts’ brand. But it doesn’t manifest the same ways as being a fan of a particular brand of running shoe or makeup or whatever (people and things – different on all fronts). The host has to have qualities that the community values and cultivates. Hopefully positive ones and not just venom and charisma.

But also boundaries. The brand creator needs to know their job and their role with regards to their work and the community. But they can’t manage it themselves. They can be friendly, but not everyone’s friend. They can drop in and post things and comment here and there, but they can’t wade in and be among the community all the time. 

Within and beyond communities, the unending torrent of external and unsolicited opinions and input about their work on social platforms (and just the lure of algorithm-driven distractions in general) is probably the worst thing that could have ever happened to creatives (aka the brand creators). It sucks time away from doing the work, sucks the mind away from focusing on it, being confident in it, and more. 

I’ve had some interesting conversations with authors about these challenges, as it’s something many struggle with as they gain an audience and popularity, and work on figuring out what social presence they should have to continue to develop their careers, brand and marketing. Which platforms make sense, and how to use them?

One of the simplest and best pieces of advice I can give is: do less. Especially in communities centred around any brand, the brand creator’s job is to do brand stuff. Write books, make music, produce podcasts, etc. The community needs to be fed, after all. (Yes, I am aware that many fandoms exist for long-dead media...)

The brand creator is only going to be suited to one or a couple of platforms anyway. Being told you need to be everywhere, either for marketing or building community, is bad advice. You won’t enjoy it, you won’t be good at it (unless perhaps you’re Lil Nas X, or rather his team), and every platform has a different vibe. They’re meant for different things, people act on them in different ways. 

There is a good chance a brand creator’s best social platform, the one that fits, doesn’t even lend itself to community building. Interaction, sure, but mainly one to many, you and your audience. Not your audience having lively interactions and developing their own relationships among themselves separate from you, just with your work as a linking thread.

As also noted, someone needs to run these communities/platforms who is not the brand creator. Which is tricky if you can’t afford to hire someone, and there’s a limit to how much volunteering you can ask people to do. (Community administration is a whole ‘nother set of columns.)

Those who do the community administration also need to adhere to the law of “less” to keep communities safe and thriving. Firm boundaries, clear and succinct communication, etc. Muting, blocking, turning off comments, shadow banning – there are a lot of ways that pruning and curating to make communities less wildly social actually makes them more (healthily) social.

After all, for our personal social accounts we can mute, block, unfollow, etc. to craft our online experiences to make them better and more sane. The need for this scales in communities with more people and more interactions. “Anything goes” as a strategy on social platforms is a recipe for chaos and misery.

We’ve been doing variations of this social thing online since the 80s. You’d think that we’d get it by now. Or maybe not. New technology doesn’t make humans any less messy, or capitalism less rapacious. (After all, on social platforms what we all really are is an endlessly bountiful crop of lucrative user data.) Technology, especially “social,” just amplifies.

So use the tools we have. Cut and curate ruthlessly. Go where you’re wanted and feel like you can not only contribute openly, but are encouraged to. (Unless it’s some incel or anti-vaxxer sinkhole. Don’t go there.) Don’t wrap yourself in an agenda. You can’t fix someone who’s being wrong on the internet. No one is entitled to your attention. You deserve community.

And maybe invest in some good books in case that solar superstorm does happen.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca

Melanie Baker

Melanie Baker has a Mennonite background, a career in tech, and enjoys the unlikely ways these things complement each other. She enjoys writing, working with geeks, building communities, baking and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.