I am delighted to bring you a guest blog post from Claire Croft @cm_croft, New Media Manager at Durham University.
Once people discover that my day job entails all things web-based, I’m often quizzed on what this sudden social media frenzy is all about. Fad or future? - people ask.
I generally respond with a story.
I used to work with someone – let’s just call her ‘L’ for now – who often checked her Facebook account in the office at lunchtime. It was late 2007 and Facebook was exploding in a big way across the UK, rapidly becoming a great source of lunchtime banter in our office (as in many other offices around the country, I’m sure). Anyway, one particular afternoon, L logged in to her Facebook profile and let out a shriek (in a manner only other North Eastern girls could ever emulate). HE had sent her message. The Australian. The One Who Got Away. The boyfriend from years back who disastrously returned back Down Under. The love of her life. OMG - this was one lunchtime we would never forget. A few weeks of flirty messages back and forth ensued. He came to visit her, she went to visit him, and by the following June, L was wafting her Australian visa around the office and handing in her notice. Fast forward a couple of years, and she’s now happily settled in Sydney with Mr Right, a house and a permanent job.
Well, it’s a good story, the cynics generally concede, but was Facebook really so pivotal? Granted, he might have done a bit of cyber-stalking and located her email address. Or, dare I say it, found her postal address still written down somewhere. But hours spent agonizing over the wording of an email or letter could easily have left him wide open to silence and rejection. A short, spontaneous Facebook message via a mutual friend on the other hand, provided a space which was somehow less brutal, more casual and open.
Social networking is ultimately an experimental space where we can solicit feedback and exchange ideas without the constant fear of falling flat on our face. As such, its impact is far more widespread than the destiny of my friend L and her Mr Right. Take the recent general election for instance. Ok, so social media didn’t quite do for Cameron what it did for Obama, but it played a huge role in shaping public opinion. I’m not talking about Sarah Brown’s tweets, or the Tory take over of You Tube on election day, but rather about the things which the electorate (that’s you and me) posted and discussed. Compare, for instance, the 100,000 fans on the Conservatives’ official Facebook page with the 600,000 views received by the David Cameron ‘Common People’ video spoof on You Tube. Or, for that matter, the 300,000 people who joined a Facebook group entitled ‘I bet I can find a million people who DON'T want David Cameron as our PM’. The point is that people engaged more with each other through informal groups and threads than they did with the so-called ‘official’ channels. This election wasn’t won and lost by politicians using social media, but by the way in which the common people like you and me seized it back to debate the issues amongst ourselves.
In no other election have I become so acutely aware of the political stances of my friends and colleagues. Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds and blog entries between them debated the questions we were all asking – from minute policy details, to the impact of Gordon Brown’s infamous gaffe, to the colour of Nick Clegg’s tie. Few people are ever so forthcoming in ‘real’ life about political allegiance, yet social media provided us with a forum in which we felt comfortable defining ourselves as blue, red, yellow or green. As the election grew nearer, a surprising number of Facebook users went as far as trading in their profile picture for their choice of party campaign poster – my own news feed was awash with the likes of ‘Vote Labour’, ‘I agree with Nick’ and ‘Cameron for PM’ . This wasn’t the political apathy of previous elections – politics was alive and well in this new, non-judgmental, discursive space.
While the televised prime ministerial debates of old media were focusing on their own opinion polls and some obscure thing called the ‘worm’, what we were seeing via social media was something quite different. This was where the real debate happened, where absolutely anyone who wanted to could join in and sing along with the common people…
So to return to the initial question, recent events have left me in little doubt about the truly transformational power of social media. This is something which is capable of connecting us in ways never before possible, making the unexpected happen and turning debates inside out. Try it. I can’t vouch for exactly where it might lead, but you might be surprised.
I am very gratefull to Claire for this post and want to know if you agree or disagree? I would love to know what you think, please leave your comments.