Social Media: Plenty of talking, not much listening
Thursday, July 25th 2013
I can’t say that I was very surprised by the news that the State Department spent $630,000 to boost traffic to four of its International Information Programs (IIP) Facebook pages.
Was it a waste of money at a time of fiscal austerity? Absolutely. Did it result in a bump in traffic? At least temporarily, yes. Will IIP be able to hang on to those followers and advance its mission to “build America’s reputation abroad”? Probably not.
The reason it won’t is because of what social media has become: A place where a lot of people (and institutions) are talking, but very few are listening.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised at what State did. For too many institutions these days, being seen as a player online is more a fashion than a well thought-out strategy.
I’ve been involved with the Internet and what’s now called social media for a number of years, and it’s pretty clear at this point that the low barrier to participation – all you really need is a cellphone – has resulted in an environment with a discouragingly low signal-to-noise ratio.
Take Facebook, for example. No one wants to be friend-less on Facebook, but once you acquire a certain number of “friends” – even if they’re people you actually know (which is not necessarily a requirement for many users) – your Facebook home page is soon transformed into an endless stream of random observations and rants and links to cat videos from people you may rarely if ever talk to. Who has the time to read it all?
Then there’s Twitter. When I opened a Twitter account a few years ago, I was glad when I got my first followers. But then I started getting followers whose interests seemed totally unrelated to my messages. When I looked at the thousands of followers that many of them had – and then noticed that they also had an almost equal number of people that they purportedly followed – I realized that for some people, Twitter had become a quid pro quo game: I’ll follow you if you follow me. Even at a limit of only 140 characters a Tweet, there’s no way to keep up with the updates of even a few dozen active Twitter accounts, much less the thousands of accounts that some of these people claimed to “follow”.
All this is not to say that Twitter and Facebook can’t be useful. As an individual, if you choose your “friends” (and those you “follow”) carefully, you can create a manageable amount of content that can be interesting to you.
Similarly, for an institution devoted to public diplomacy like the State Department, there are ways to use social media like Facebook and Twitter to build relationships with the public – and advance your mission – without having to buy them. The key is to provide content that the public can’t get anywhere else, because you are the best and most authoritative source.
So, how is IIP doing on that front?
I Googled “Facebook, State, IIP” and the first Facebook page that came up was Global Conversations: Our Planet.
As I scrolled down the page, I saw colorful photos of Rio de Janeiro (with a caption that asked: “Before supertankers and yachts occupied the harbor, what did it once used to be?”); the Aurora Borealis; Victoria Falls in southern Africa (“Victoria Falls is also called "Mosi-oa-Tunya" in the Tokaleya dialect of Tonga. Do you know what this phrase means?”); Mount Everest in Nepal; bees; and the Great Barrier Reef.
Farther down I finally saw some references to the United States.
If you’re a member of the international audience who goes to the trouble of looking up what the American State Department has to say on Facebook, is this what you’re looking for? Will you make it a regular habit to visit this site?
And most importantly: Will this “build America’s reputation abroad”?