Attending to Social Media: Panel Discussion

This Creative Conversations event, held on 30 November 2016, brought together creatives and professional communicators to discuss how attention works in social media. Our panelists were:

Joanna Walsh (@badaude). Author, editor at 3am Magazine (@3ammagazine), the force behind @read_women and more. Her books include Hotel (2015), Vertigo (2015), Grow a Pair (2015) and Fractals (2013).

Dan Calladine (@dancall). Head of Media Futures, at Carat Global.

Francesco D’Orazio (@abc3d). VP Product & Research at Pulsar (@Pulsar_social), co-founder of the Visual Social Media Lab (@VisSocMedLab).

Colette Henry, Communications Planning Director at Futerra (@futerra), a sustainability-focused creative communications agency.

Steve Cross (@steve_x). Comedian, consultant, trainer, Wellcome Engagement Fellow, honorary fellow in Science and Technology Studies at UCL (@stsucl). Creator of @BrightClubLDN and @ScienceShowoff.

Chair: Gauti Sigthorsson (@conceptbin). Principal Lecturer in Media & Communications, CPDA, University of Greenwich.

“People are the most interesting thing on the internet.”

The chair welcomed the guests and panelists to Greenwich.

Content is endless on the internet, but people’s attention is finite. How do we generate attention in social media? Can you have too much attention? The wrong kind of attention? What do you do with it when you capture people’s attention?

Ultimately these questions are about interaction rather than content. Anyone can put some text, sounds and images out there, but getting a reaction is a different proposition. This evening is about people, because people are the most interesting thing on the internet.

“The labour of accounting for yourself”

Joanna Walsh, the first panelist of the evening, remarked on the relationship between authors and readers over social media, and related it to the popularity of auto-fiction, the blurring of fiction and autobiography by the writers. This puts the figure of the author in the spotlight. Michel Foucault, in his essay “What is an Author?”, defined the author as a function that emerged with the printing press and mass-literacy. This new production and distribution of print gave rise to a demand from the state for someone to be accountable for what was written.

Auto-fiction presents the author as a persona, blurring fiction and autobiography, as in the work of Sheila Heti (How Should a Person Be?), and earlier in Truman Capote’s work, starting with his first novel (Other Voices, Other Rooms) featuring a cover image of the author himself, beautiful and mysterious, a photo which became Capote’s “avatar”. Walsh noted also that both Heti and Capote work at an intimate level. Both these books are about the part love played in their lives. Heti’s work, in particular, reminds us that disclosure is a performance. The moralism of authenticity demands truthful self-disclosure, which can be seen in the social media compulsion to and reward of self-disclosure.

This translates to labour. “The labour of accounting for yourself” in writing. Walsh distinguishes between writers’ output (written work published) and promotion online, while noting that this boundary is becoming ever more blurred.

“Social media is the domain of the shapeshifter”

The next speaker, Dan Calladine, is Head of Future Media at Carat Global. His career at the agency predates most online media (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter), so he’s seen the rise of the “digital native” alongside the new online media that now dominate.

A key teme for Calladine was how quickly novelty becomes ordinary online. He pointed out that the “like” button is only around 5 years old. Sharing, liking, replying – these are behaviours that are fairly recent. [ref. Without their Permission, book]

Anyone can create stuff online. Fake news (and Facebook’s stated inability to differentiate between them and real news) are an example of the proliferation of content like this. In that, they are related to fan sites, which have created mini-celebs in their own right, and social media celebrities like vloggers.

Social media is the domain of the shapeshifter. Personas are different between platforms (i.e., my Twitter persona has a different voice and content than on Facebook, Instagram, etc.). And sometimes we find those differences out by breaking the implicit rules of those platforms. For example, Dan Calladine’s profile picture on LinkedIn, a picture of a kitten, looks pretty unusual for that platform.

Speculating on trends, Calladine noted that Facebook’s “live video” feature is now being heavily pushed. In a few years we’ll wonder what these platforms looked like without that feature.

Some other emerging trends:

VR (FB bought Oculus Rift and its OS), virtual, augmented reality technologies for being “together” over media in a different way from what we now have.

Commerce will become more social, especially with people becoming more comfortable with sharing their shopping and purchase experiences online.

FB and TV (Twitter and TV), closer links between social media and what used to be called television.

Automation and bots will be seen a lot more in interfaces of all kinds, so that chat messaging serves as an interface for services we’ve had to dea with by text until now. With Siri and now Echo, it is becoming usual to speak with digital systems and to get a response.

“Dark social” (email, Snapchat) is also growing more important.

“All of this is about relevance.”

Following this, Francesco D’Orazio stuck to the topic of marketing, audiences and how his company, Pulsar, aims to be nothing less than an oracle for what people tink, using social data.

The key idea for D’Orazio is relevance. This is what is at stake in all monitoring of publicily visible social media. : Discovering audiences, trends, planning insights (targeting), measurement, category mapping, brand health.

Marketers want attention (lat. attendere, “waiting” in Italian). Attention and waiting.

D’Orazio raised the question of incentives for falsity, of content that is aimed purely at capturing attention long enough to persuade people to click on a headline and to share it. What’s the “need” for fake news?

Topicality: Affinities of audiences.
Expression: Language of the audience.
Value: What is of value to the audience, and what values does the content correspond to or serve.
Timeliness: Moments.
Targeting: Communities.
Engagement: Performance of content, what works.

All of this is about relevance – whatever is on social media has to resonate with people in order to be read, viewed, shared…

“Attention is an exchange”

Colette Henry, communications planner at Futerra, opened with a fundamental question on our topic: Why is attention important?

As infants we need attention for our survival. We have a basic human need to “grab” or “take” attention. But it also serves an essential filtering function – we pay attention by deciding what not to pay attention to.

Attention is an exchange, and if you work with social media, you must respect this exchange of attention. And be willing to let go of it: Control of attention is like a spotlight. Social media enables whoever (not just those who pay) to take up the spotlight.

Ignore this at your peril when it comes to communications strategy. Henry shared some examples of how slippery the controls are over who gets to direct the spotlight of attention, even in well-resourced campaigns. Nestle’s “positive cup” campaign, opened up a lot of discussion on social media, with people reacting to the campaign by asking about the recycling and waste generated by the use of aluminium pods. Similarly, Beyonce’s “Who runs the world?” for a large clothing retailer provoked a reaction focusing on sweatshop labour, asking how the clothes were made and at what human cost.

Brands are not able to control attention, people will take note of whatever they like. A brand cannot “own” the attention spotlight.

Henry pointed out that good practice examples of socia media campaigns shows that brands can successfully give up ownership of the campaign itself, generating positive attention and engagement. For Henry, it is essential for social media communications to “recognise that you don’t own it,” and be prepared for others taking it in directions you didn’t foresee at the planning stage.

“Puncture your own filter bubble”

And finally, on the principle that you should never put anyone in front of an audience after a professional comedian, Steve Cross concluded the panel presentations.

He opened by explaining how to make outrage marketing work for you – the Daily Mail model of science communication and comedy. One key point he impressed ont he audience: Fake “facts” get you lots of followers and retweets.

Also, do your best to puncture your own filter bubble. Are you a science communicator? Why not retweet status updates from kids who don’t like science, and complain about having to do it at school? Result: “Boring people” who take things literally unfollowed Steve’s account in droves.

Cross took us on a whirlwind tour of his events (Science Showoff, Books Showoff), and his Twitter feeds. He tweets in a number of guises, adopting a variety of personas and voices, including tweeting as a naked mole rat.

Concluding with a pro tip, Cross advised anyone wanting to build a following on social media: Get a very good camera. Photos get a lot of likes and shares. Take good pictures of people who perform at your events, they’ll make them their profile pictures, share them, etc.

“Pay attention to get attention”

Some shared themes emerged among the panelists in their remarks. One is that if you want to generate attention on social media and sustain it for longer than the few seconds it takes to find the like-button, you need to find something that people care about. To do that, be open to surprising, random-seeming topics (naked mole rats, anyone?) and pay attention to what comes back to you from what you put out initially, because things change along the way.

The panel concluded with a discussion on the many ways in which social media demands of its users that we construct personas through which to perform our presence. It doesn’t mean that these personas are inauthentic (on the contrary), but rather that they are part of what Erving Goffman called the “presentation of self in everyday life”. This presentation is now enabled in a new way by social media which allow us to perform not merely to our intimates and those we meet in person, but to a dispersed, decentered audience.

Another theme that emerged in discussions was the blurred distinction between true and false, fact and fake – fake news being the obvious example of how social media not only enables but rewards behaviours which generate attention, sensation and entertainment. Is this emblematic of our “post-truth” moment in politics, as well, in which unsubstantiated claims can swing elections?

“We live not in the age of news but in the age of fiction” (Joanna Walsh)

For Creative Conversations, many thanks to our panelists, and to Alex Craft, marketing and events coordinator for CPDA.

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