Internet users of all kinds have probably encountered advice that they should have a social media presence. There are many inducements: entrepreneurs will attract more business; jobseekers will find their desired positions, and influencers will become famous and wealthy.
The blogging phenomenon began in the US in the late 1990s and reached SA in 2004.
But Google Trends shows that interest in blogging was 10 times more popular in 2008 than it is now.
Peer and media pressure spurs people to emulate bloggers who have massive numbers of followers. Today, audiences have moved away from blogs to social networking sites like Twitter and Instagram.
In SA, banker Michael Jordaan has more than 170,000 followers on Twitter. Media personality Bonang Matheba is approaching the 3-million mark. Social workers Ruth Mphahlele and Tebogo Fisher say that the attraction to these sites is fuelled by vicarious pleasure — when people see something on social media, they want to share the experience. Participating on social media satisfies the human need to be part of a group. People want to fit in, they add.
You feel like you’re not good enough and your confidence takes a dip... You ask yourself difficult questions. And sometimes you get wrong answersRuth Mphahlele
But it’s hard work keeping up with the Jordaans and the Mathebas and it can become an all-consuming task. Social media experts advise users that, to get more from their efforts, they should create and maintain editorial calendars. But most people on these sites do not work for media houses or big companies where staff play different roles in the pursuit of a common goal.
For many people, the failure to amass followers and traffic quickly leads to disillusionment and frustration. "You feel like you’re not good enough and your confidence takes a dip," says Mphahlele. "You ask yourself difficult questions. And sometimes you get wrong answers," Fisher adds.
Many people respond by trying to cheat the system. On Instagram there are "follow trains" — where users pledge to follow each other blindly without payment. What suffers are real connections based on common interests.
Digital marketer Musa Maswanganyi believes social media users should not be in a hurry to add followers.
Maswanganyi believes it’s wiser to aim for smaller but engaged communities rather than focusing on numbers alone. Engaged communities are likely to buy what entrepreneurs are selling or agree with their messages. "Followers don’t always equate to customers or real fans in the digital space. It is better to work on building a small community that is engaged, rather than a huge number of followers who read nothing you say."
In his book Tribes, blogger and internet marketer Seth Godin says: "Friending 10 or 20 or 1,000 people on Facebook might be good for your ego but it has zero to do with any useful measure of success."
British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar believes the human brain is wired to maintain a circle of up to 200 people. Any more than that, the friendships are likely to be meaningless. They also risk being neglected, as friendships require maintenance from the parties involved.
Maswanganyi echoes these sentiments. "Sometimes in real life, one good friend is enough. Building a genuine, large fan base online is difficult and takes time. Be patient, be disciplined.
"Social media is about being social. The more you socialise, the bigger the reward and the more others will want to socialise with you. Keep posting engaging content. Ask questions. Make bold statements. Post pretty pictures. Comment on other people’s posts. Share other people’s content."
As trends evolve, and with blogging no longer satisfying needs, users are advised to add podcasting (audio blogging) and vlogging (video blogging) on their already full to-do lists.
Abandoning social media because of a paucity of followers would be futile and illogical. The technology has become indispensable. But websites and blogs are no longer the shiniest tools in the shed. Initially, blogs were popular among amateur writers and opinionistas marginalised by mainstream media. But after governments and big companies harnessed the potential of social media, everyone wants in.
Mphahlele and Fisher say that social media allows citizens to communicate with government departments without having to spend much on airtime.
According to World Wide Worx and Ornico’s 2017 research, 97% of South African companies use Facebook. Corporate blogs rose from 24% in 2016 to 36% in 2017. But half of the companies concede they lack digital skills, while at the same time they are battling to curb internet addiction among their workers.
According to a paper by American professors Kimberly Young and Carl Case, 37% of corporate employees with internet access abuse it for non-work purposes.
Posting content on microblogging sites and networking with like-minded people is more rewarding than posting messages on blogs, which can feel uninspiringly formal for users. On Twitter and Instagram, the messages are short, easy to create and feedback is instantaneous.
Yet, digital marketer Solomon Thimothy puts the number of group members who stick around for updates of messages at between 1% and 5%. People are easily distracted on social media. In a genuine, albeit naive, step to increase their networks, users populate Facebook with personal information.
Wily marketers abusing such naivety make newspaper headlines and shame the online marketing industry. The now defunct public relations firm Bell Pottinger was employed by the Guptas to create fake social media users to worsen SA’s already prickly race relations. Using personal data from Facebook users, UK company Cambridge Analytica ran campaigns to influence the outcomes of the US and Kenyan elections. It closed shop recently.
Data analyst Kyle Findlay says such behaviour is disconcerting to social media users as it goes against social media’s raison d’etre. "Successful platforms have an interest in ensuring that users have the best, most authentic, trustworthy experience possible.
"Underhanded social media techniques undermine the trust and enjoyment of the platform — which is bad for business."
The utopia social media promised the world has not materialised. People are only just beginning to realise this, Findlay says. "We’re just waking up from the modern tech utopia to realise the complex reality that is actually involved."