Survival of the fastest

By Frederick Mordi

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He punched the keyboard on his iPad frantically as if he was racing against time. The CEO was still speaking when he posted the story. It was only then that he relaxed. A suspicion of a smile lurked at the corners of his mouth.

An hour later, the company’s PR managers were battling to pull down the story that had already gone viral on the Internet. Anxious stakeholders of the company were calling to know the true position. Even the CEO that was copiously quoted in the story, was at a loss for words.

In his post, the blogger had reported that the company donated $5million to the victims of a natural disaster in the country, whereas the correct figure was N5million! The blunder caused no small pandemonium in the listed company. Such is the nightmare that PR managers face these days.

Welcome to the social media revolution!

The evolution of the social media, which are tools and applications that enable individuals to interact on the web, appears to have triggered a paradigm shift in communication. Gone are the days when people reply on the traditional media (newspapers, magazines, radio and television), as the only source of news.

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The youth and everyone else for that matter, are gradually gravitating towards the social media as an alternative source of news. A poll Mashable—a digital media website—conducted in 2011, confirmed this trend when it noted that: “41 percent of respondents got their news online; 31 percent from a newspaper; 65 percent from the Internet.”

The need for people to tell their own stories by themselves, rather than rely on others to do so for them, seems to be the key driver of the phenomenal adoption of the social media all over the world.

For instance, according to reports, it took radio broadcasters 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million; television 13 years; and the Internet just four. But it took Twitter, three years, two months and one day to reach the first billion tweets! There were about 1.35 billion monthly users of Facebook (founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg), as of 2014, according to Facebook.com.

This shows that the traditional media that have been the sole authority as far as news dissemination is concerned, seem to be losing relevance with the advent of the social media.

Denis McQuail, a communication expert, believes the new media and the Internet in particular, have made the idea of the ‘personal newspaper’ (the so-called Daily Me), in which content is assembled according to individual taste and interest, a realistic possibility.

“The more this happens, and it could apply to the radio and television as well, the less the mass media could provide a common basis in knowledge and outlook or serve as the ‘cement of society,’” McQuail says in his book: McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, published in 2010.

But the social media are not without their own challenges. For instance, unlike the traditional mass media where the concept of gatekeeping—a process by which filtered information goes through to the public by newspapers, radio or TV—is considered sacrosanct, the social media have no such restrictions. That is why a gaffe can escape unnoticed.

It is also generally believed that the information transmitted by social media networking sites are not often correct, like that post in question. This happens because some online content providers do not take pains to verify facts before they publish, unlike the traditional media where practitioners regard facts as sacred.

Criticisms against the social media

All these have led to an avalanche of criticisms against the social media. Andrew Keen, a leading Internet critic, in his book: The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, says the law of digital Darwinism governs the Internet where there seems to be survival not of the fittest, but of the ‘loudest and most opinionated individuals.’

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It is this apparent rush to be the first to post information, Keen contends, that makes it difficult for social media users like the blogger that caused panic in the company, to validate their facts. Under these circumstances, Keen, who decries lack of gatekeeping in the social media, adds that “the only way to intellectually succeed is by infinite filibustering.”

Jürgen Habermas, a respected German sociologist, seems to support this view as he was once quoted as saying that “The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet, is the decentralised access to unedited stories.”

Nevertheless, the social media have become one of the most important avenues through which public opinions are shaped in modern societies. They defy boundaries, challenge media censorship, and provide an alternative to the traditional media. Perhaps one of the merits of the social media is the instant feedback that they give. That is why many people saw the blogger’s story on the company as soon as he posted it.

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However, there is a need to strike a fine balance between being the first to report a story and reporting what actually happened. This will save everyone a lot of stress. Proactive organisations are no longer leaving anything to chance. Many have established a full-fledged social media unit that looks after their online reputation.

In the new digital jungle where content is king, and only the fastest survive, it will be foolhardy for any organisation to ignore the power of the social media.

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