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Is social media killing our ability to think?

According to a paper titled ‘Analytical reasoning task reveals limits of social learning in networks’ published in The Journal of the Royal Society Interface last week, social networks make us less able to think analytically.

Through a set of laboratory-based experiments, its authors – Iyad Rahwan, Dmytro Krasnoshtan, Azim Shariff and Jean-François Bonnefon – found that social learning fails to cultivate the human mind’s ability to engage analytical reasoning. According to the paper’s abstract, “When people make false intuitive conclusions and are exposed to the analytic output of their peers, they recognize and adopt this correct output. But they fail to engage analytical reasoning in similar subsequent tasks.”

This, say the authors, shows that humans exhibit an “unreflective copying bias”, limiting their learning to what their peers are saying rather than the reasoning behind it – even when the effort and skill required is minimal.

In effect, social networks are creating a generation of copycats unable to engage in analytical reasoning. Every like, share, retweet and +1, perpetuates this limiting behaviour, making us appear smart yet actually making us less so.

Yet in a world obsessed by superficiality, celebrity and fame, I doubt many will care.

Putting the social media cart before the horse

EPSON scanner image

I’ve noticed an increase in the number of prospective clients talking to me about how they need to take a more grown-up approach to their use of social media. They tell me they know they’ve not been very good at using it and need to get a proper structure and strategy in place that is better aligned to their business and communications objectives. We have some discussions about how I could help them and talk about what it might cost. Yet, all too often, after some deliberation they declare that they’ve decided to find someone to help them with implementation, at a fraction of my cost (albeit not a massive one).

Maybe I’m biased, but to me this is false economy. Sure, if you have invested in developing a strategy/plan and a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve with social media, it makes absolutely no sense to hire a senior consultant to execute that strategy. But equally, if you’ve already identified that you need to create or refine these, then you are going to be sorely disappointed spending £3k a month on someone “doing” social media without actually knowing what they’re supposed to be “doing” or why.

But don’t worry. In the words of the social media ‘guru’ in the cartoon, I’m sure you’ll “figure it out later”…

How brands should respond on social media

Facebook-reply-buttonThe final stage of the five-step social media engagement model I outlined is response. By following the previous four steps (evaluate, acknowledge, prioritise and classify, and escalate), a brand will inevitably be faced by the question: so how exactly should we respond?

First, any response should include consideration not only of what you want to say, but also who is going to say it and how; responding to a compliment is very different to responding to a criticism. Whatever you do, you must resist the natural marketer’s urge to control, target or infiltrate social media – the resulting fallout will provide perfect fodder for critics, competitors and commentators (especially those in the ‘traditional’ media). However, when done properly, companies are just as entitled as any other individual or organisation to participate in online conversation with their customers, and in most cases it will be warmly welcomed. Contrary to popular media opinion, these people are not just a bunch of activists waiting to attack – although they will if companies appear irresponsible or disrespectful by simply treating ‘their’ space as yet another advertising medium.

The ground rules for participation in social media are undefined and open to constant interpretation. One person’s contact and dialogue is another’s spam and manipulation. But responding with information about your product or position can deliver a number of benefits:

  • it gets your side of a story heard, straight from the source;
  • it can generate word of mouth, assuming what you have to say is worth talking about;
  • it provides instant feedback on what you have to say;
  • it allows you to communicate in your own voice, on a less formal basis.

Responding to negative mentions

Let’s first look at some of the most common negative situations and the kind of response you might consider.

Malicious attacks are directly intended to inflict some kind of reputational damage on an organization or individual. Yet they provide an opportunity to encourage others to support your position. A direct response is rarely recommended, but peer pressure can quickly redress the balance. Let’s be clear: this isn’t the same as rigging votes or posting anonymous messages, but about building a network of friends for a brand that will defend it in times of adversity, like a good friend who defends you in public.

There is a lot of what can only be classed as mischievousness that takes place in social media. People want to ruffle an organisation’s feathers because in their eyes they’ve done something wrong and want them to respond. If this happens, remember that you don’t have to respond directly, but you might want to before someone else does. Each case will vary, but a little bit of humility will go a long way towards showing an openness that could be quite unexpected.

However, the vast majority of negative mentions will probably just be caused by misinformation or misinterpretation, so make sure your communication is clear and honest. There are also opportunities to facilitate conversations and add value to existing communities, but that requires organizations to evolve from wanting to control the conversation to becoming the facilitator of conversation. The objective is to give people more reasons to talk about your company.

Responding to positive mentions

Positive mentions are generally easier to deal with – although take care not to come across as conceited or arrogant. In most cases, it will simply be a case of acknowledging the compliment and thanking those making it. If it’s something really wonderful, then you could also consider using it in some way as part of your own social media marketing efforts, for instance by linking, tweeting or blogging about it in a way that makes the acknowledgement public. Personally, I find companies that do this for every compliment quite tiresome – it makes me think they are vain, desperate or have nothing else of value to contribute (or all three) so think carefully whether you risk turning a compliment into a criticism, purely as a result of how you choose to respond to it.

PR in Practice: Future Skills

Last Thursday, I drove up to Leeds to give my first ‘proper’ lecture to a group of 55 MA Corporate Communications students. The module in question was called PR in Practice and my focus was digital PR.

I spent a long time considering what to cover that would be a) original and b) thought-provoking. A couple of conversations got me thinking about skills, and specifically the skills that the communicators of the future are going to need to help their employers (agency or in-house) deal with the digital media landscape.

I posted my slides to SlideShare, and they’re embedded below. There’s a little preamble, followed by the ten ‘future skills’ that I (hopefully) made a good case for. The students debated these afterwards (we spent a lot of time on humility and honesty), and finally each study group came up with a 140 character manifesto for each skill. I’ll be sharing this later, but in the mean time here are the slides themselves.

View more presentations from Niall Cook