The Gordian Knot of Social Media

How many social media platforms can you name?  How many social media accounts do you use? If you’re an average American, you have eight social media accounts (nine for those aged 16-24). And that’s where you might think we’ve exhausted this discussion, right? Wrong.

Down a rabbit hole

EVG’s Chief Operations Officer, Joey Hall, shared Overdrive Interactive’s Social Media Map with me earlier this summer. I followed the link to an infographic that mapped 449 social media platforms into 25 specific groups. You read that right! Those numbers made me look more closely at each group. Sure, a few platforms appear in more than one group, but I was surprised by it all the same. I spent a lot of time looking at this map, thinking about it, and eventually found myself having an internal argument about social media:

  • Social media is supposed to bring us together, but it’s really pushing us further apart.
  • Social media is for sharing our lives with our friends and family, but my Facebook feed has more posts from brands focused on selling me things than cute puppy photos.
  • Social media is a private enterprise just like any brick-and-mortar store or company. BUT social media is so closely woven into our lives, it should be a public service like electricity.

In short, I realized social media has become a gordian knot. So I did what any self-respecting marketer would do: I went looking for data to give me answers.

Mapping social media  

What do humans, elephants, ants, lions, and orcas have in common? We create social groups because a community gives us a better chance to survive. Each of these species had to learn cooperation in order to survive. Humans have been working at building strong communal networks for more than 130,000 years. So it isn’t a surprise that we’ve taken our real life behavior and applied it to our digital lives.

The first real social media site, Six Degrees, was launched in 1997. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, nearly half of the world’s population uses social media. That’s 3.96 billion people! Facebook made its debut in 2008, and 13 years later, it’s the most widely used platform in the world. Now, nearly 63% of the U.S. population is on Facebook. Worldwide, Facebook has roughly 2.8 billion monthly users. That might be why when you talk about social media, most people think about Facebook and similar social sites.

What began as a way to connect and share what’s happening in our daily lives has morphed into communal siloes of like-minded individuals. Overdrive’s map is a visual lesson about what divides us. How can we find “our tribe” when there are so many choices? Does our definition of “social” change if we think of TripAdvisor or Spotify as social media platforms? Are our social accounts are driven by algorithms deployed by the major platforms with their own self-interest instead of our choices? Does it matter?

I believe it does. Overdrive’s map makes a convincing argument that social media is more than personal connections. Social media has revolutionized and overhauled the very notion of how we work and interact with one another.

Everything is now social

Setting out to test the notion that the average person has only eight social media accounts, I decided to conduct a survey. I entered all of Overdrive’s platforms into a survey doc, and then asked my EVG colleagues a simple question: Which of these social media accounts do you use?

The survey, like the infographic, was divided into 25 categories with a total of 449 specific named platforms. My survey wasn’t scientific, but it was anonymous to encourage users to share freely the sites they did or didn’t use. My colleagues range in age from  late 20s to late 60s. No other demographic data was collected. I asked them to select all of the platforms they use in a given group and provided an open-ended response for users to list any platforms not listed. Respondents could also select “None” as an answer. More than 30 people were kind enough to respond. (Thanks so much!) The results surprised me.

As a group, we use at least one platform in all 25 categories, AND everyone uses at least one music and an online payment platform. On the other hand, we do have colleagues who choose not to use any video, photo sharing, or networking platforms. And it was no surprise that we are heavy users of numerous messaging and review platforms.

Even more interesting: my colleagues called out 62 platforms that weren’t included in Overdrive’s list. Among these were Telegram, TrustPilot, and QQ. By the time you read this, chances are good we’ve found even newer platforms to use.

My 30 colleagues have 1,176 social media accounts, which works out to an average of 35.6 accounts per person. Surprised? So was I!

My 30 EVG colleagues have 1,176 social accounts, which works out to an average of 35.6 accounts per person. Surprised? How many do you have?Click to Tweet

Business is now social

EVG has deep, deep roots in travel, so it’s no surprise we have more than 125 social travel accounts. Thinking about Airbnb and CouchSurfing as social media sites seemed a little odd to me. Calling Hotwire, Orbitz, and Travelocity social media platforms seems like a stretch. The travel category isn’t the only one where business tools have morphed into social media platforms.

The photo sharing category lists Flickr, Instagram, and Pinterest, which we can all agree are clearly social sites. But it also includes Dropbox. The news category includes Reddit, an obvious social sharing platform along with Mashable and Buzzfeed, both of which self-identify as media and entertainment companies.

Then there’s the management tracking category populated by such platforms as Cisco, HootSuite, and Oracle SRM. While each platform helps businesses connect with their audience, it’s a one-way interface. Isn’t mutual interaction a very core component of the social concept? If we accept that definition, then you can argue that PayPal, Venmo, and Stripe are social platforms. You can bill me, and I can pay you digitally, which is a mutual, two-way transaction. But are these business platforms really a social interaction? I’m not convinced, but my younger colleagues point out that you can “comment” with a heart, thumbs up or other emojis on Venmo and PayPal. You can also create specific groups to make it easy to pay one another. Perhaps that makes them social sites to a limited degree. Or is it just one more way to pretend we’re connecting with one another?

Redefining social media

Thanks to the generosity of my colleagues and their willingness to share their social media account usage with me, I found myself thinking about social media in new ways. The digital revolution has moved at a fast and furious pace. I constantly find myself in a pickle because I don’t own or use a mobile phone. So much of our lives can be managed from that small, hand-held device. What was science fiction in the O.G. Star Trek is now a fact of life. The same is true of that dorm room project dreamed up by Zuckerberg. In 13 years it went from a handful of college students (relatively speaking) to a global audience of billions. Everything is now social.

The next time you’re reviewing your social media strategy as a business or a brand, EVG encourages you to think outside the parochial definition of social media. It’s no longer just your Instagram or Twitter presence. Even if you’re TikToking, SnapChatting, and networking on LinkedIn, you’re also engaging with audiences via dozens of other platforms. Is your digital strategy evolved enough to cover all of them?

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