When my team held a brainstorming session in late summer 2017 to discuss our global theme for the tenth anniversary of Social Media Week, we could not have possibly imagined what would come in the months to follow—namely, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and an industry-wide about-face regarding the role of tech in society.
In some respects, what Cambridge Analytica symbolized was bigger than the incident itself. In this watershed moment, those of us in the business of social media were forced to check our optimism and question the blurring lines between humanity and technology. Was social media, something many of us predominantly saw as a force of good for so many years, corroding our connections with the world and to each other?
This was a loaded question and one we grappled with in the early stages of conference planning. Shouldn’t a long-standing event series on the topic of social media and tech take a less critical tone? Our answer to that was a resounding “no.” Big challenges require tough, uncomfortable conversations.
We chose “Closer” as our 2018 global theme and programmed more than 100 sessions designed to explore the intensifying conflict between community and individualism. Ahead of the conference, which wrapped April 27, we also partnered with YouGov to unearth how everyday Americans view the expanding role of technology in their lives.
The findings of our study, and conversations that took place on stage at our flagship event, supported the notion that social media and tech still have the ability to bring us closer, but not without regulation, restraint, and some healthy debate.
Breaking out of the “you” universe
Matt Britton, CEO of Suzy and Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons on stage at Social Media Week New York.
When social media began to take off, people saw these new channels as a way to dissolve cultural borders. We optimistically believed that access to more people and more information would make us more open-minded—but is that really the case?
Not necessarily. The democratization of media has turned individual citizens into individual brands and to quote SMWNYC speaker Matt Britton, CEO of Suzy, “brands are people and people are brands.” Some would argue that this has caused behavioral shifts like the phenomenon of “doing it for the [Insta]gram.” Per our study, four in ten millennials say they have purchased a product just so they can talk about it on social media, and half of them said they’ve participated in an experience for this same reason. Narcissistic or not, these behaviors have been boon for brands and have even birthed an entirely new marketing practice of influencer marketing.
Bridging the social divide
CNN’s Brian Stelter, Meredith Kopit-Levien, EVP and COO of The New York Times discussing why great journalism matters.
The algorithms designed to reinforce our established preferences are also narrowing our views of the world. Per our study with YouGov, nearly one-third of millennials say social media is a “primary” source of news and information for them. Among all age groups, 50 percent of U.S. adults say that social media is a source of news and information. What’s more, people are creating their own filter bubbles: 47 percent of U.S. adults admit to blocking, unfollowing, or unfriending someone due to conflicting political beliefs.
What’s more, per our research with YouGov, 48 percent of adults say social media and technology have had a negative impact on democracy and many are pessimistic about the expanding role of technology in the future.
In this vein, multiple sessions underscored the importance of journalism in democracy. In a mainstage talk with CNN’s Brian Stelter, Meredith Kopit-Levien, EVP and COO of The New York Times argued that the truth is worth paying for and even previewed a new initiative the Times is leading to protect the fourth estate. Further, Max Stossel, Head of Content and Storytelling for the Center of Humane Technology, said that major digital platforms should be optimizing for “time well spent” and not attention.
Balancing tech with humanity
Suraj Patel, Candidate for US Congress, NY-12
At our first Social Media Week ten years ago, AI seemed like a science fiction topic and not a timely and relevant subject for brands and marketers. Flash-forward ten years, and AI is central to the conversation. At SMWNYC, we set out to explore how technology can support and augment our marketing (and our humanity), rather than replace it.
Per our study, U.S. adults are concerned about the expanding role of technology in our lives. The one silver lining: Younger demographics are significantly more optimistic than older generations, supporting the notion that millennials and the generations that follow will take a cautiously optimistic approach to answering tech’s tough questions. Consider SMWNYC speaker Suraj Patel, a 34-year-old entrepreneur who is running for Congress in New York’s 12th District. Patel’s campaign has leaned into social media and technology to outraise is opponent heading into the June 26 primary. In conversation with Axios’ media reporter Sara Fischer, Patel argued that digital media can be a boon for democracy—even in the face of “fake news” and bots—and that emerging channels can be leveraged to engage a new electorate of voters.
Closer to a new tipping point
What’s incredibly clear to me when we think about this timeline and what’s even more poignant than the proliferation of the digital platforms is that our collective outlook on the relationship between humanity and technology was much simpler, and significantly more optimistic back when we started Social Media Week. Social media was to be the great force that would bring people together. It promised to dissolve borders, and make us more open-minded. And for marketers, it was a golden opportunity to build relationships between brands and people.
What we learned at SMWNYC this year was that our concerns about the expanding role of technology in our lives are warranted, and the tech world must reconsider whether optimizing for attention is good for society overall. But we also learned that social media and tech have led to incredible innovations in the way brands approach things like customer service, and have birthed an era of purpose-led brands who are building their businesses by driving social good.
In this important moment for our industry, it’s on us to weigh the good with the bad. It’s not an either or situation; we can cheerlead the great work that’s being done in our space with healthy skepticism and the kind of debate that will drive positive change when it comes to intersection of tech and humanity.
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