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Social media gives the power back to the people

By David Cowling - posted Thursday, 1 November 2012


Australians are some of the most active social media users in the world - be it because of our inherently social nature, friendly approach or thirst for new technology. If you take a look at the latest Australian social media stats for September we see that almost half of the Australian population is signed up to Facebook. It doesn't stop there though as we continue to embrace new social tools such as Instagram, a photo sharing network which quickly grew to 100 million members globally.

As social media use continues to expand across the country it imparts a new sense of social power upon its users. Here, I look at some of the many ways in which this empowerment has occurred.

Firstly, many of us use social networking tools for business purposes. Commonly this involves LinkedIn, Twitter and the use of Facebook Fan pages to build an online audience that socially interacts with your brand or organisation. Having an online following gives businesses a fast and effective method to send messages to their target audience and followers. These tools have also become an important customer service and feedback tool. Many Australian companies now monitor their online reputation – much of the time on networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Traditionally, the average person voicing their opinion would only be expressing themselves amongst peers or with a particular organisation. With the rise of social media and public platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the user is empowered to share their views in a public forum and gather support from likeminded individuals. Social media has very much given the world a new form of 'free speech'. As a result, we have seen people become famous because of their views and opinions expressed through social media websites. From here, such popular users may even be approached by brands and companies with offers of work. Who would have thought that expressing your views online could actually lead to a full-time job with very attractive monetary rewards?

Online fame and publicity does have its drawbacks. Websites like Twitter allow users to signup and act anonymously, which sometimes may lead to fake accounts and online abuse. We have seen a few cases of trolls recently (online abusers), such as those attacking Charlotte Dawson after she actively engaged with her abusers only to ultimately suffer mental instability from such aggressive and hurtful online behaviour. We saw a similar incident recently involving Robbie Farah, the captain of the West's Tigers NRL team, in which anonymous Twitter users were posting derogatory comments about his mother's death. Such behaviour has attracted the attention of the police and leading political figures as they try to determine how such abusive social media users can be tracked down. Social media certainly has its benefits in everyday life but there can also be serious drawbacks when users start acting inappropriately and abusively online.

As social media is a real time communication method (similar to online chat, text messaging or a simple phone call) this means that influential social media users can dictate topics of discussion. These often then become trending topics when their followers join in on the conversation. Twitter for example has a system where you can see the most discussed topics at any one time. Sometimes it will be about a particular company, news item, or event.

When information like this spreads quickly, this can create either a positive or negative sentiment toward the topic being discussed. Sometimes a business can get a massive amount of social PR when the general community spreads information about their product online, possibly resulting in that business selling more of their products or services. However, it is just as easy for a negative influence to spread across the social networks if a brand or company fails to please their customers. One of the best examples of this I have seen is when the Vodafone Network in Australia crumbled during a public holiday weekend. Users were left unable to text message and in some cases call for considerable time. Whilst all companies have issues time to time, this has significantly tarnished their reputation ever since. Whenever a status update is made by staff on the Vodafone Australia Facebook page, there are generally a fair amount of social media users criticising Vodafone for a poor quality service and network. Despite trying to mend the relationship with customers and create a positive vibe on their social networking accounts, Vodafone to this day still receives a large number of negative comments on a consistent basis – even when they do a good job. Whilst most business won't have the everyday impact like Vodafone, it goes to show that customer service and quality of service is still at the front of customers' minds. If you fail to provide a descent standard of service you will most certainly hear about it on social networking websites.

Government Departments tread carefully on social media websites. They are representing the greater community and need to be very cautious about comments posted online. But we should give credit to many local, state and federal government departments for establishing a social media presence – for sharing information and interacting with their community. ASIC have even told companies that if you are issuing a product recall you should now also consider issuing such notices through social media channels to make sure you are reaching various different demographic portions of the population.

Australia's Prime Minister and other leaders use social media to provide everyday information to the community. Prime Minister Gillard has even spoken out about abusive online users and how the government and police departments are working with social media websites around the world to uncover such culprits. During the Arab Spring, we saw how the combined power of the people on social media channels ultimately leads to the end of decade long dictatorships. Many have argued such events would have never occurred without Facebook being the central communication and organisation tool for the demonstrators. In the end, the governments in Egypt, Libya and Yemen were overthrown – by the people. In Australia, fellow citizens are discussing important political topics such as the carbon tax and the war in Afghanistan. Many Australian politicians use social media and receive feedback via these channels on a daily basis from members in the community.

Finally, social media has enormously impacted traditional media. Now when news breaks, we often hear about it first on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Traditional media reach out to online users to verify stories, find out more information and also spread their own content. TV programs run Twitter hashtags to entice people to discuss online whilst watching a particular show. We even see news reporters promoting their Twitter accounts during the main news segments in the evening news.

Recently we saw popular 2GB presenter Alan Jones make some controversial comments to a small political party gathering about the death of Julia Gillard's father. Once the news circulated amongst the wider public, social media users took to Facebook and Twitter to express their anger at such hurtful attacks on our Prime Minister. Some of these social media users even went so far as to reproach the advertisers on Mr Jones' show via the advertisers' own social media channels. As a result of the public pressure, much of which came from Facebook users, several advertisers pulled their sponsorships and promotions on Alan Jones' show. If any sector of society has felt and/or ridden the full force of a burgeoning social media, it is these traditional media outlets.

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Social Media is still relatively young in Australia and there are still a lot of unchartered waters ahead. As a nation we have only really experienced significant social media growth over the past 3 years. Whilst this is the case, many people, companies and organisations still haven't yet joined social media websites. Over the coming years it is expected that even more Australian entities, both people and business, will sign up and join the social media revolution.

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About the Author

David Cowling is the owner and operator of SocialMediaNews.com.au and also runs VivdSocial, a social media agency.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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