The True Promise of Social Media Drowned Out by Self-Promotion

Technology That Would Change Conversation Has Lost Element of Engagement

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In the past five years, social media has changed the world. It has redefined the press, contributed to geo-political revolutions and certainly turned the advertising industry on its head. It has altered the way we communicate with our families. With a few keystrokes we can reconnect with distant elementary school friends and lost lovers.

It has brought tremendous utility for business people. With platforms like LinkedIn, we're never more than a few steps away from networking with anyone in the business world, whether they want to or not. I can't imagine giving up the immediacy and the instantaneous access that I get to trending news and public opinion through Twitter.

I've been a beneficiary of all these changes. Social media has helped transform PJA Advertising and introduced whole new attitudes and skill sets. The range of content that we produce has been vastly expanded, and so has the definition of what constitutes marketing. Like many agencies, we have become publishers, video-production houses and technology incubators. Hopefully, all of us have become more innovative and offer more value to our clients.

Still, I increasingly have this unsettling feeling that we've lost the early idealism that social media promised. Technologies that promised to change the way that we communicate and talk with each other have largely become platforms for broadcasting and self-promotion. It's starting to feel as if the grownups have taken over.

In the early days of the social-media revolution -- when blogs and Twitter had the sparkle of new toys –- one of its great promises was to exponentially expand the power of media in the hands of everyday citizens. An individual with a blog could be as influential as a New York Times journalist. One person could shake the foundation of a major brand with a video posted on YouTube. Peer reviews of products could become more effective than advertising.

That promise has crumbled under the weight of self-promotion. Today, a lone voice can barely get noticed online, no matter how powerful the message. Somewhere along the way, the established media channels reclaimed their power at the top of the pyramid.

The early influence of social media also meant that politicians, public figures and corporations could no longer stage-manage their images and reputations through exclusive channels that they controlled. Much more interesting conversations were taking place on blogs and Twitter. If you wanted an audience, you had to start talking like a real person, and social media quickly exposed hypocrisy and insincerity. It was great while it lasted. Today, corporations and politicians alike have turned control of their voice back over to handlers and public relations professionals.

There was also a refreshing moment when it appeared that social media had reignited the lost art of conversation. Twitter may have started as a medium to tell people what you were doing, but it quickly became a place to talk about what was interesting. Increasingly it has become a platform to broadcast individual messages and post links to content created elsewhere. All that has value, but we've lost the interactive engagement and human connection that made Twitter a game changer.

Nothing shows the lost promise of social media more than how we live our lives on Facebook. When Facebook moved beyond universities and opened its network to the public, it created the equivalent of a digital living room that encouraged a level of intimacy. The Facebook experience is now more like living at a crowded noisy mall. It's ostentatiously commercial, and we all pay a high tax in the form of personal data for the privilege to click a Like button.

I would not go back, or reverse the tide of progress. As I pointed out, tremendous good has come from social media. Plus , it's now an irreversible part of life. I'm more interested in rekindling the early promise and the values that social media introduced. Giving people a voice, pursuing conversation and encouraging authenticity still remain great goals for the advertising industry, and for society at large. Wherever possible, we should continue to pursue those values through social media and the next wave of new technology that comes our way.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.

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