No one who uses social media is confused about the difference between a company and an individual. Companies or brands who pretend to act like individuals are immediately disingenuous and suspect. They are clearly selling something. If one follows the Twitter feeds at BBC or the Guardian, one expects to get headlines in return (not a conversation). In fact the Guardian allows us to follow their Twitter feeds focused on politics, money, technology, gardening, etc. We expect appropriate stories from those feeds, and not a two-way conversation. If we follow Walmart, we expect coupons. On the other hand, our expectations for the behavior and accessibility of Charles Arthur, the Guardian’s tech editor… an individual… are quite different (http://twitter.com/charlesarthur). We expect to engage with Mr. Arthur and occasionally get a response. We also expect to hear about his skiing trip, or how he feels about being stuck in traffic on his way to a tech conference.
In his book from the dark side of the social media conversation The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov urges the cyberutopians to open their eyes to the fact that the antisocial pursuit of profit is what drives social media. “Not surprisingly,” he writes, “the dangerous fascination with solving previously intractable social problems with the help of technology allows vested interests to disguise what essentially amounts to advertising for their commercial products in the language of freedom and liberation.”
Any deviation in this direction, even for the well-intentioned reason of attempting to have a two-way engagement with members of social networks, could potentially undermine a brand’s credibility in that environment. Major brands have tried many social media campaigns over the past two years aimed at “engagement”, and today the cyberutopian solution is still elusive.
At the end of the day, the same thing remains true about social media as about any other communication, PR or marketing platform: social media is a tool set, not a strategy.