Does social media actually depress people? A new study says yes — sort of.

For some time now, we’ve been hearing the contention made that social media causes people to become angry or depressed.

One aspect of this phenomenon, the argument goes, is the “politicization” of social media — most recently exhibited in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Another aspect is the notion that since so many people engage in never-ending “happy talk” on social media — presenting their activities and their lives as a constant stream of oh-so-fabulous experiences — it’s only natural that those who encounter those social posts invariably become depressed when comparing them to their own dreary lives that come up wanting.

But much of this line of thought has been mere conjecture, awaiting analysis by social scientists.

One other question I’ve had in my mind is one of causation:  Even if you believe that social media contributes to feelings of depression and/or anger, is using social media what makes people feel depressed … or are people who are prone to depression or anger the very people who are more likely to use social media in the first place?

Recently, we’ve begun to see some research work that is pointing to the causation — and the finding that social media does actually contribute to negative mental health for some users of social media.

One such study appeared in the February 2017 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. Titled “Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being:  A Longitudinal Study,” the paper presents findings from three sets of data collected from ~5,200 subjects in Gallup’s Social Network panel.

The researchers — Drs. Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis — studied the relationships between Facebook activity over time with self-reported measures such as physical health, mental health and overall life satisfaction. There were other, more objective measures that were part of the analysis as well, such as weight and BMI information.

The study detected a correlation between increased Facebook activity and negative impacts on the well-being of the research subjects.  ore specifically, certain users who practiced the following social media behaviors more often (within one standard deviation) …

  • Liking social posts
  • Following links on Facebook
  • Updating their own social status frequently

… showed a decrease of 5% to 8% of a standard deviation in their emotional well-being.

As it turns out, the same correlation also applied when tracking people who migrated from light to moderate Facebook usage; these individuals were prone to suffer negative mental health impacts similar to the subjects who gravitated from moderate to heavy Facebook usage.

The Shakya/Christakis study presented several hypotheses seeking to explain the findings, including:

  • Social media usage comes at the expense of “real world,” face-to-face interactions.
  • Social media usage undermines self-esteem by triggering users to compare their own lives with the carefully constructed pictures presented by their social media contacts.

But what about that? It could be argued that heavy social media users are spending a good deal more time engaged in an activity which by definition is a pretty sedentary one.  Might the decreased physical activity of heavy social media users have a negative impact on mental health and well-being, too?

We won’t know anything much more definitive until the Shakya/Christakis study can be replicated in another longitudinal research study. However, it’s often quite difficult to replicate such findings in subsequent research, where results can be affected by how the questions are asked, how random the sample really is, and so forth.

I’m sure there are many social scientists who are itching to settle these fundamental questions about social media, but we might be waiting a bit longer; these research endeavors aren’t as tidy a process as one might think.

Brand PR in the era of social media: Much ado about … what?

These days, brands often get caught up in a social media whirlwind whenever they might stumble. Whatever fallout there is can be magnified exponentially thanks to the reach of social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

When a “brand fail” becomes a topic of conversation in the media echo chamber, it can seem almost as though the wheels are coming off completely. But is that really the case?

Consider the past few weeks, during which time two airlines (United and American) and one consumer product (Pepsi) have come under fire in the social media sphere (and in other media as well) for alleged bad behavior.

In the case of United and American, it’s about the manhandling of air travelers and whether air carriers are contributing to the stress – and the potential dangers – of flying.

In the case of Pepsi, it’s about airing an allegedly controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a nondescript urban protest, and whether the ad trivializes the virtues of protest movements in cities and on college campuses.

What exactly have we seen in these cases?  There’s been the predictable flurry of activity on social media, communicating strong opinions and even outrage.

United Airlines was mentioned nearly 3 million times on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram just on April 10th and 11th.  Reaction on social media over the Pepsi ad was similarly damning, if not at the same level of activity.

And now the outrage has started for American Airlines over the “strollergate” incident this past weekend.

But when you consider what the purpose of a brand actually is – to sell products and services to customers – what’s really happening to brand reputation?

A good proxy is the share price of the brands in question. United Airlines’ share price took a major hit the week the “draggergate” news and cellphone videos were broadcast, but it’s been climbing back ever since.  Today, United’s share price looks nearly the same as before the passenger incident came to light.

In the case of Pepsi, company shares are up more than 7% so far in 2017, making it a notably robust performer in the market. Moreover, a recent Morning Consult poll found that over 50% of the survey respondents had a more favorable opinion of the Pepsi brand as a result of the Kendall Jenner commercial.

That is correct:  The Pepsi commercial was viewed positively by far more people than the ones who complained (loudly) about it on social media.

What these developments show is that while a PR crisis isn’t a good thing for a brand’s reputation, social fervor doesn’t necessarily equate with brand desertion or other negative changes in consumer behavior.

Instead, it seems that the kind of “brand fails” causing the most lasting damage are ones that strike at the heart of consumers’ own individual self-interest.

Chipotle is a good example, wherein the fundamental fear of getting sick from eating Chipotle’s food has kept many people away from the chain restaurant’s stores for more than a year now.

One can certainly understand how fears about being dragged off of airplanes might influence a decision to select some other air carrier besides United – although it’s equally easy to understand how price-shopping in an elastic market like air travel could actually result in more people flying United rather than less, if the airline adjusts its fares to be more the more economical choice.

My sense is, that’s happening already.

And in the case of Pepsi, the Jenner ad is the biggest nothing-burger to come down the pike in a good while.  The outrage squad is likely made up of people who didn’t drink Pepsi products to begin with.

Still, as an open forum, social media is important for brands to embrace to speak directly to customers, as well as to learn more about what consumers want and need through their social likes, dislikes and desires.

But the notion of #BrandFails? As often as not, it’s #MuchAdoAboutNothing.

More Trouble in the Twittersphere

With each passing day, we see more evidence that Twitter has become the social media platform that’s in the biggest trouble today.

The news is replete with articles about how some people are signing off from Twitter, having “had it” with the politicization of the platform. (To be fair, that’s a knock on Facebook as well these days.)

Then there are reports of how Twitter has stumbled in its efforts to monetize the platform, with advertising strategies that have failed to generate the kind of growth to match the company’s optimistic forecasts. That bit of bad news has hurt Twitter’s share price pretty significantly.

And now, courtesy of a new analysis published by researchers at Indiana University and the University of Southern California, comes word that Twitter is delivering misleading analytics on audience “true engagement” with tweets.  The information is contained in a peer-reviewed article titled Online Human-Bot Interactions: Detection, Estimation and Characterization.

According to findings as determined by Indiana University’s Center for Complex Networks & Systems Research (CNetS) and the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, approximately 15% of Twitter accounts are “bots” rather than people.

That sort of news can’t be good for a platform that is struggling to elevate its user base in the face of growing competition.

But it’s even more troubling for marketers who rely on Twitter’s engagement data to determine the effectiveness of their campaigns. How can they evaluate social media marketing performance if the engagement data is artificially inflated?

Fifteen percent of all accounts may seem like a rather small proportion, but in the case of Twitter that represents nearly 50 million accounts.

To add insult to injury, the report notes that even the 15% figure is likely too low, because more sophisticated and complex bots could have appeared as a “humans” in the researchers’ analytical model, even if they aren’t.

There’s actually an upside to social media bots – examples being automatic alerts of natural disasters or customer service responses. But there’s also growing evidence of nefarious applications abounding.

Here’s one that’s unsurprising even if irritating: bots that emulate human behavior to manufacture “faux” grassroots political support.  But what about the delivery of dangerous or inciting propaganda thanks to bot “armies”?  That’s more alarming.

The latest Twitter-bot news is more confirmation of the deep challenges faced by this particular social media platform.  What’s next, I wonder?

Putting the best face forward at Twitter.

tdWhen business results look disappointing, one can certainly sympathize with the efforts of company management to explain it away in the most innocuous of terms.

This may be what’s behind Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s description of his company’s 2016 performance as “transformative” – whatever that means.

Falling short of industry analysts’ forecasts yet again, Twitter experienced a revenue increase of only about 1% year-over-year during 2016.

Monthly active users didn’t look much better either, with the total number barely budging.

While I have no actual proof, one explanation of tepid active user growth may be that Twitter became the de facto “place for politics” in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election — which didn’t actually end in November and continues apace even today.

Simply put, for many people, politics isn’t their cup of tea — certainly not on a 24/7/365 diet, ad nauseum.

Quite telling, too, was the fact that advertising revenue showed an absolute decline during the 4th Quarter, dropping below $640 million for the period.

Even more disturbing for investors, the company’s explanation about the steps Twitter is taking to address its performance shortfalls smacks of vacuousness, to wit this statement from CEO Dorsey:

“While revenue growth continues to lag audience growth, we are applying the same focused approach that drove audience growth to our revenue product portfolio, focusing on our strengths and the real-time nature of our service.”

“This will take time, but we’re moving fast to show results,” Dorsey continued, rather unconvincingly.

One bright spot in the otherwise disappointing company results is that revenues from international operations – about 39% of total overall revenues – climbed ~12% during the year, as compared to a ~5% revenue drop domestically.

Overall however, industry watchers are predicting more in the way of bad rather than good news in 2017. Principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson at digital media market research firm eMarketer put it this way:

“Twitter is losing traction fast. It is starting to shed once-promising products such as Vine, and [to] sell off parts of its business such as its Fabric app development platform.  At the same time, some surveys indicate that Twitter is becoming less integral to advertisers’ spending plans.  That doesn’t bode well for future ad revenue growth.”

With a prognosis like that, can the next big drop in Twitter’s share price be far behind?

What do you think?

Is the Phenomenon of “Fake News” Overhyped?

fnIn the wake of recent election campaigns and referenda in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Austria and the Philippines, it seems that everyone’s talking about “fake news” these days.

People all across the political and socio-economic spectrum are questioning whether the publishing and sharing of “faux” news items is having a deleterious impact on public opinion and actually changing the outcome of consequential events.

The exact definition of the term is difficult to discern, as some people are inclined to level the “fake news” charge against anyone with whom they disagree.

Beyond this, I’ve noticed that some people assign nefarious motives – political or otherwise – to the dissemination of all such news stories.  Often the motive is different, however, as over-hyped headlines – many of them having nothing to do with politics or public policy but instead focusing on celebrities or “freak” news events – serve as catnip-like clickbait for viewers who can’t resist their curiosity to find out more.

From the news consumer’s perspective, the vast majority of people think they can spot “fake” news stories when they encounter them. A recent Pew survey found that ~40% of respondents felt “very confident” knowing whether a news story is authentic, and another ~45% felt “somewhat confident” of that fact.

But how accurate are those perceptions really? A recent survey from BuzzFeed and Ipsos Public Affairs found that people who use Facebook as their primary source of news believed fake news headlines more than eight out of ten times.

That’s hardly reassuring.

And to underscore how many people are using Facebook versus more traditional news outlets as a “major” source for their news, this BuzzFeed chart showing the Top 15 information sources says it all:

  • CNN: ~27% of respondents use as a “major source” of news
  • Fox News: ~27%
  • Facebook: ~23%
  • New York Times: ~18%
  • Google News: ~17%
  • Yahoo News: ~16%
  • Washington Post: ~12%
  • Huffington Post: ~11%
  • Twitter: ~10%
  • BuzzFeed News: ~8%
  • Business Insider: ~7%
  • Snapchat: ~6%
  • Drudge Report: ~5%
  • Vice: ~5%
  • Vox: ~4%

Facebook’s algorithm change in 2016 to emphasize friends’ posts over publishers’ has turned that social platform into a pretty big hotbed of fake news activity, as people can’t resist sharing even the most outlandish stories to their network of friends.

Never mind Facebook’s recent steps to change the dynamics by sponsoring fact-checking initiatives and banning fraudulent websites from its ad network; by the accounts I’ve read, it hasn’t done all that much to curb the orgy of misinformation.

Automated ad buying isn’t helping at all either, as it’s enabling the fake news “ecosystem” big-time. As Digiday senior editor Lucia Moses explains it:

“One popular method … is tapping the competitive market for native ad widgets. Taboola, Revcontent, Adblade and Content.ad are prominently displayed on sites identified with fake news, while there are a few retargeted and programmatic ads sprinkled in. Publishers install these native ad widgets with a simple snippet of code — typically after an approval process — and when readers click on paid links in the widget, the host publisher makes money.  The ads are made to appear like related-content suggestions and often promote sensational headlines and direct-marketing offers.”

So attempting to solve the “fake news” problem is a lot more complicated than some people might realize – and it certainly isn’t going to improve because of any sort of “political” change of heart. Forrester market analyst Susan Bidel sums it up thus:

“While steps taken by … entities to curb fake news are admirable, as long as fake news generators can make money from their efforts, the problem won’t go away.”

So there we are. Bottom-line, fake news is going to be with us for the duration – whether people like it or not.

What about you? Do you think you can spot every fake news story?  Or do you think at least of few of them come in below radar?

Social media: The biggest casualty of the U.S. presidential election?

smrrOnly one presidential candidate was a winner on election night. But there was more than one loser.

Sure, minor-party candidates lost. But I’d posit that social media itself was a loser as well.

It isn’t an exaggeration to contend that the 18-month long presidential campaign has had a corrosive effect on the social media landscape.

You could even say that the social media landscape became downright “anti-social,” thanks to the 2016 campaign.

For those who might have posted politically-oriented social media posts, they’ve risked receiving strident arguments, flamethrower responses and alienated friends.

Along those lines, a recent Pew Research study found that significant percentages of people have blocked individuals or adjusted their privacy settings on social media to minimize their exposure to all the vitriol.

It’s a far cry from social media’s promise in the “good old days” – not so long ago actually — when these platforms enabled people to stay in touch with friends and make acquaintances across the country and the world that they would never have been able to forge in the days before social platforms.

The easy ability to share information and interests only added to the appeal of social media, as people expanded their horizons along with their network of friends.

Companies and brands got in on the action, too. They found social media a welcoming place – particularly in the case of consumer brands where companies could ride the wave of social interaction and promote all sorts of products, services and worthwhile causes.

Advertising and promotion on social media naturally followed, with many companies allocating as much as 20% or more of their annual marketing budgets to those endeavors.

Until quite recently, that happy scenario seemed to be holding, with brands launching interesting, fun, quirky or cause-oriented shareable content in the hopes that they would “go viral” and pay dividends far in excess of the resource outlay.

What a difference 18 months makes. Suddenly, brands are spending only about half as much on social media marketing as they attempt to stay above the fray.  That also means staying far away from venturing into current topical discussions, lest their prickly digital audiences become instantly polarized.

Unfortunately, for brands who wish to avoid controversy arising from even the most seemingly innocuous of postings, social media is no longer a welcoming meadow of lush green grass and bright flowers. It’s closer to a war-torn field peppered with land mines just waiting to explode.  Hence the hasty retreat.

Unfortunately, just like trying to unscramble an egg, it’s very hard to see social media ever going back to what it used to be.

And for that state of affairs, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“Dying on the Vine”: Why the video sharing service is now history.

vineRemember back in 2012 when Twitter introduced its Vine video sharing service?

Back then, observers were positively breathless in their accolades for the service, with some positing that Vine represented some sort of tipping point in the world of instant communications.

A little more than four years later … and as of November 1, Vine has just been shuttered. How is it that such a vaunted social media platform went from de rigeur to rigor mortis in such a short time?

There are several key reasons why.

Time and place: The year 2012 was a perfect time to launch Vine, as it coincided with when many companies and brands were shifting their focus towards video communications.  At the time, short-form video was a novelty, making it a kind of dog whistle in the market.  But Instagram, newly acquired by Facebook, swooped in and made a big splash, too, while Snapchat attracted younger audiences.  What was Vine’s response to these competitor moves?  If there was much of any, no one seems to have noticed.

Competing … with yourself: Strange as it may seem, Twitter itself ended up competing with Vine in 2015, launching its own branded video playback capabilities.  When something like that happens, what’s the purpose of the older brand that’s doing the same thing?  Twitter’s simultaneous foray into live-streaming was a further blow to a brand that simply couldn’t compete with these newer video services introduced by Vine’s very own parent company.

Commercial viability? — What commercial viability? In all its time on the scene, Vine never figured out a way to sell advertising on its network.  It had a good germ of an idea in sponsored content, but never seemed to capitalize on the opportunities that presented, either.

Knowing your audience: From the outset, Vine attracted a fairly unique and crowd of users, such as people involved in the hip-hop music scene.  It was vastly different from the typical user base in social media – and yet Vine never did all that much to support these users.  As a result, there was little brand affinity to keep them close when the next “bright, shiny object” came their way.

In the social media space, the rise and fall of platforms can happen with amazing speed. Unlike some other platforms, Vine was a big hit from the get-go … but perhaps that turned out to be a double-edged sword.  Vine never did figure out a way to “mature” with its audiences – which eventually left it behind.

In the end, Vine went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.