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The Iain Hoskins Column

Has our love affair with social media finally died? I wonder if we’ll look back at March 2018 as ground zero – the month when we were finally told that Father Christmas wasn’t real; the velvet curtain pulled back to reveal the grim reality of a two-bit magician creating magic with smoke and mirrors

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg in the dock giving his congressional testimony certainly feels like a significant chapter of the past decade’s social media utopian dream. Like all relationships, the day that trust has been irrevocably broken often marks the end or at least the beginning of the end. Our social media footprint and all the information that goes with it, is essentially a data-mine and the mea culpa from Zuckerberg is a watershed moment on how our personal information was misused.

One of the most interesting things about the whole Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal was seeing how little the authorities both in the UK and USA understood about how social media works. An industry has exploded over the past decade, completely repositioning modern life and how we communicate with each other. The sophistication of cookies and targeted algorithms has revolutionised advertising.

Conventional marketing worked on the basis of shouting loud and often, across as many mediums as possible and dividing people into socio-economic groups in the hope that some of the messages stick. It’s been replaced by a very specific targeted level of data previously unavailable and unimaginable to advertisers.

Privacy and security with our data is generally a given and in the main we don’t really care if advertisers know that we prefer apples to oranges, Aretha Franklin to Beyoncé, Jaguar to Bentley. And while we happily fill in online quizzes and personality tests, we now know that everything we like, share and retweet is ultimately forming a profile of ourselves. Also building a full picture of what type of person we are, our likes, dislikes and crucially as part of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, our voting intentions.

Affronted by this, last month saw a grassroots meme campaign to bin off Facebook, ironically on Facebook. But how easy is it to drop a social media account? It’s so intertwined with our whole lives and daily routine, it’s a reaction as instinctive as eating and breathing. For me, as a business owner (bars and bistros), it is unthinkable that I could have a social media blackout for a week, a day or even an hour. It’s where I find out news, information and what people are saying. We have various staff groups across Facebook and WhatsApp that are essential for sharing information and ideas. Removing social media from our lives is possible, but for most of us, it’s as extreme as moving to a desert island.

But for all the negativity surrounding social media, which is pretty much all we hear, these big bad evil forces stealing our data, unwittingly getting us to vote for Brexit and Trump, I think we need to remind ourselves of the amazing things that social media has brought us. The connections and the communities that it’s brought back together, school friends, first loves and the people you partied with in Ibiza 20 years ago.

This social media footprint now means that you never really lose touch with people, those electronic connections keep you bound together for as long as you keep your account active. It also lifts the lid of the six degrees of separation theory as we realise through a series of interconnections via our friends that pretty much everyone is connected through their Facebook profile.

As a business owner, I’ve seen first-hand small businesses that were made, and saved, by social media from Facebook via Twitter and particularly, in the hospitality industry, Instagram. The criticism of the data harvested, stored and shared by Facebook is always about the big corporations muscling in on a new way to flog us the same stuff again. But the value of this data is of huge benefit to independent micro-business who can find their niche through specific data-targeting that was previously unavailable and financially unreachable.

If what the last few months has shown us, it’s that we need to approach this era now with eyes wide open. How much you choose or decide to live your life through social media is up to you, but as a free service reliant on advertising your data is your subscription. Government, however, has to catch up. Facebook, which also owns Instagram and Whatsapp, is a company so large that it’s a powerful political entity, a social utility and a communications structure. How the big players deal with the challenges the data scandal has thrown up will shape our relationship with social media forever.

Words by Iain Hoskins
Image Credits by Jennifer Swaby