Social Media Needs an Airbag
How networks, partners, and even users can help keep the networks safe
At first blush, you might not assume that social media and the common airbag have much in common. You’d be wrong about that assumption, though. At this year’s SXSW festival, Spredfast CEO Rod Favaron presented the airbag, and its history, as a compelling metaphor for the state of social media today—and for what a safer social media landscape might look like tomorrow.
Social media, Favaron argued, is one of the most pervasive technologies of our time. Of the 7.6 billion people on the planet, more than half of them are on the internet. And of those people online, a full 80 percent, or 3 billion people, are on social. “That’s a massive number,” Favaron said, “and it happened incredibly quickly.” And it’s true: now working as a content marketer for a social media marketing tech platform, making my living writing about all things social media marketing, I sometimes have to pinch myself and remember that I first joined Facebook as a college sophomore in 2005, with my .edu email address and my third-person status updates (“Jaime Netzer is…at the library again!”).
The state of social media networks in 2018
Social media today serves many purposes that have very little to do with those early status updates—my Facebook login is now a way to log on to other sites. Facebook’s Messenger app keeps me in touch with friends and family everywhere. More broadly, social has become the first line for news that matters, a quick way to broadcast safety in the event of a disaster, and the natural home for political movements that previously have struggled to find a voice.
All of this adds up to a lot of power for the networks, Favaron explained, adding that with power—as we know—should come responsibility. In the past several years, people have begun to question how powerful the networks have become. In 2017, Facebook changed its long-standing mission statement of “making the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Also in 2017, executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared on Capitol Hill in order to publicly acknowledge their role in Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential campaign.
With increased power for the social media networks comes a correlative increase in responsibility.
By 2018, Edelman’s Trust Barometer reported that trust among the informed public in the U.S. had imploded, plunging 33 percent. American trust in American government, business, media, and NGOs is now the lowest of the 28 markets surveyed by Edelman—below Russia and South Africa. So what do the social networks have to do with this gap in trust? And what responsibility do they have, if any, in turning this tide?
These questions take us back to the airbag, and the seatbelt. Automobiles changed so much about the way Americans live, work, and play. Though the Model T hit the production line in 1908, it wasn’t until 1966 that the first bill was signed into law requiring seat belts to be manufactured in cars—and it wasn’t until 1989, nearly eighty years after the car became a fact of American life, that federal law mandated seat belt usage in cars in the U.S. Social media, Favaron argued, needs to move faster, self-regulating instead of waiting for the government to do so. “Do we want the government to control our keyboards?” Favaron said. “No—let’s get out ahead of it."
Social media, Favaron argued, has the power to influence elections, disaster response, public perception, and brand narrative. “It’s time for the networks—industry powerhouses employing tens of thousands of people—as well as their ecosystem of brands, partners and users to take responsibility for how the platforms are used.”
“It’s time for networks, partners, brands, and users to take responsibility for how the platforms are used.” — @rodfav
How to Use the Airbag as Inspiration for Social Media Safety
It was Volvo who helped solve the seatbelt struggle back in 1959. An engineer created the 3-point seatbelt—technology so effective that it could’ve netted Volvo a fortune on patents alone. But Volvo didn’t do that, Favaron explained. “They gave the patent away because they decided it was just too important to keep to themselves.” Social can take a cue from the manufacturer and do the same thing, Favaron said. “Making social a safe place for everyone—while pushing its innovation forward—may just lie in teamwork between the networks, brands, partners and users.”
Maybe that looks like brands lobbying Congress for regulation. But maybe it looks like social media regulating itself, much the same way the video game industry did in 1994—introducing ESRB, a rating system the entire industry agreed would help dictate who might be the best audience for which content. “It’s an entirely different industry,” Favaron said, “but the message is one social media can learn from.”
As social media marketing software knitted in close partnership with the social networks, Favaron explained four key ways any brand that’s a member of this ecosystem can help shape what social looks like:
- Be the social role model—set the standard first
- Build trust with customers by creating and sharing content that’s truly meaningful
- Connect with customers that matter most to you through focused social care campaigns
- Provide your customers with value
“Social media isn’t going anywhere,” Favaron explained. “It’s connected us with friends, family, and the rest of the world. There is more good in social than bad, and if we work to build our technology, campaigns, and products with positivity, we will build the social media airbag.”