The evolving role of social media networks

Media Corner

Clare Forrester

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

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About two weeks ago Minister of Science and Technology Phillip Paulwell disclosed at a dinner hosted by the Camperdown Alumni St Andrew Chapter that he was about to pilot a programme at schools in his constituency, including Camperdown High School, through which every child would be given a computer tablet and access to the internet. The minister left the function early so there was no time to ask for any elaboration of his announcement, such as when this ambitious programme would get off the ground. However, assuming it does in the near future, then this is bound to ramp up our reliance on social media networks with far-reaching implications for communication approaches within an important sector of our information market.

The recently concluded presidential election campaign in the United States, and before that the London Olympics, provided a lot of evidence of the growth of social media networks, involving such digital tools as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, in influencing global and segmented markets. However, although Jamaica can boast a relatively advanced telecommunication structure overall, there still does not seem to be a significantly large number of people with internet access that would allow us to fully exploit this form of communication. If the minister of science and technology is really serious about his plan to target the education community, that is about to change.

One of the most interesting aspects of both the recently concluded US presidential election campaign as well as the London Olympics is the role that the social media networks played. In the aftermath of that campaign, an advantage conceded to the Obama team was their effectiveness in exploiting social media tools and the internet. Obama himself fully utilised his Twitter account in communicating with potential voters. A classic indication was his rapid (and funny) response to the Clint Eastwood "empty-chair speech" at the Republican party convention by posting a photograph of himself seated in a chair at the White House accompanied by a message: "This seat is taken." That became the most widely circulated tweet arising from that convention.

Then there is the hugely circulated candid photograph of Michelle and the president greeting each other in an affectionate embrace that must have done more to convince women voters of a genuinely strong relationship between the couple than any constructed campaign message could have achieved. Within seconds of its posting, it became a hot commodity on the internet. Not surprisingly, this photograph (and no doubt the various comments affixed to it by each sender) became the widest circulated tweet in the campaign, if not ever.

No longer is the marketplace in developed countries with a democratic tradition reliant on comments and opinions from the media oligarchy for an indication of how a marketing message or strategy resonates in the public sphere. Feedback on social media entities, especially Twitter and Facebook, is the new communication force. It is little wonder that in developed countries with greater access to digital tools and internet access, this is now the norm; policymakers as well as product marketers must have Twitter and Facebook accounts. By one estimate, some 90 per cent of US senators and House members now have Twitter accounts, as do 42 governors and more than 35 world leaders. President Obama has hosted online Twitter town-hall meetings on topics such as student loan interest rates, and Twitter has its own government liaison in Washington, DC. According to an estimate by eMarketer, the microblogging site was growing more than twice as fast as Facebook last year, at 31.9 per cent - although it had only about 24 million active US users, compared with Facebook's nearly 133 million.

In our part of the world, while we cannot be considered technological neophytes by any stretch of the imagination, we are still to make full use of social media tools, most likely because of inadequate internet access by the overwhelming majority of our population.

Paulwell, however, seems to be turning his attention in that direction. If we recall the large role that this minister played in the PJ Patterson-led PNP administration in deregulating the telecommunication industry, then it may not be too far-fetched to believe that he could have some long-lasting positive impact through the actions he disclosed at that previously mentioned dinner function.

I had first-hand evidence of the potential of this communication tool recently at a forum addressed by Mr Patterson. The former prime minister was delivering the Calabar 100 Lecture on October 17 at the Pegasus Hotel. During the lecture, my attention was drawn to a group of 6th-form students sitting close to the front of the room and who seemed to be totally focused on their cellphones rather than on the speaker. Afterwards I asked one of them to explain their preoccupation with the cells and was told that they were actually texting messages in response to some of the points raised by Mr Patterson. We have long known that our youth are heavily into texting and cellphones. Unlike tweeting, however, texting is the exchange of messages within a closed or confined audience. We were no more aware of how Mr Patterson's talk went over with that audience than before the students began exchanging their messages. If they were tweeting, the reach of the lecture would have been way more extensive, and possibly so too the media treatment of the event itself. I anticipate that given the continuing global explosion of these digital tools, gate-keeping decisions taken by our own mass media entities are likely to be less confined to the old media oligarchy.

However, Twitter and other forms of social media can be a twin-edged sword, or a mixed bag of barbs as well as benefits, as the Republican campaign, perhaps more than the Democrats, would have realised. Some of this was reflected in data provided by Google that indicated that while Barack Obama was a more popular topic on their search engine, Mitt Romney was the favoured search term on news and information websites. It did seem also that the more widely circulated negative tweets, especially during the latter stages of the campaign tended to ridicule blunders on the Republican side, such as the Eastwood appearance, a lot more than possible flaws by the Obama camp.

Minister Paulwell, who is also the member of parliament for the East Kingston constituency, made some other commitments during his short presentation at the banquet, such as his intention to fund study grants to recent Camperdown graduates who have gained access to medical schools at the University of the West Indies and in Cuba. I have no doubt that his disclosures would have been the subject of hundreds, if not thousands of tweets, were those tools currently fully utilised by our local community of adolescents in Jamaica. Given the potential for that type of response, the member of parliament would definitely be now under some social pressure to deliver on his promises with some exigency.




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