Loneliness, magnified

By Lewis G. Parker on October 1st, 2013

The girls at the registration desk of Social Media Week in London don’t so much ask for your VIP credentials as award you with them, because the crux of social media seems to be the ability to convince everyone that you are, above all, a very important and successful person.

In the creative space of Blackall Studios in Shoreditch, the electronic airport jazz, which serves as intro music for the first event of the day, washes over the handful of guests breakfasting on tasty croissants, coffee and juice.

“Is Data Killing Creativity?” is one of the higher-end theoretical discussions taking place this week in such an extensive schedule that even the biggest media organisations wouldn’t be able to cover it all. With hundreds of events taking place from Westminster to the Greenwich peninsula, overlapping over the course of six days (with extra dates added in October to satisfy demand), the scope of social media has become so vast that it squashes the footprint of even the biggest individual news organisations.

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“You’re free to tweet at your leisure!” announces the compere over thudding bass music, which has been cranked up to breakfast-repeating levels. Sat onstage with oscillations battering his senses is Dr. Joe Fry from the Google Creative Team, a.k.a. “The Zoo”.

One of the start-ups advertising at Social Media Week.

One of the start-ups advertising at Social Media Week.

A WiFi signal away in the offices of the Tug social media agency on Charlotte Road, the croissants are dry and the coffee has run out. The presenter is the founder and managing director Nick Beck. With a crisp white shirt, tanned features and smile lines ironed onto his face, Beck look like the kind of guy who would give your wife a foot massage on a plane.

He informs us with some pride that Tug’s previous seminar, on Wednesday, was about the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan and what he can teach us about social media. I’m gutted I missed it. Today’s presentation is called “How to build a social media community from scratch”.

At the Big Data debate, Dr. Joe Fry from Google begins to speak. He’s annoyingly smart and verbose, what you imagine Russell Brand would be like if he’d had a brilliant science teacher. Joe speaks about how Google’s data analysis has helped predict worldwide flu trends and coordinate the disaster relief effort in post-hurricane Haiti, among other things.

Nick Beck refers to his employees at the Tug creative agency in London as “Tuggers”. He then lets rip with some insight about the next big thing in social media, “Gnomes are back!” which he will repeat twice more over the course of the hour.

Dr. Joe Fry is talking about one of his clients at the Google Creative Team, Unilever, which owns many of the world’s biggest hair-care brands, such as Brylcreem, VO5 and TRESemmé. Unilever recently asked Joe to make its brands the definitive source of information for hair-care related queries.

In the trade, when a company publishes seemingly unbiased information as part of its marketing strategy, it’s known as content marketing. Joe told Unilever that with vast amounts of data, “You can use the flu-trends curve to define what the next big hair trend will be.”

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Nick Beck hands over to the firm’s social media director, Ben Romberg, a serious young fellow who clicks through some PowerPoint slides. I can’t see anyone taking notes, but there are lots of people taking pictures of each slide on mobile devices. I’m doodling on my notepad, wondering if the company’s name really signifies “tugging” a boat along, as its cutesie boat logo suggests, or if it’s an acronym that stands for something else, such as Tedious Uninspiring Guff. But anyway, Ben catches my attention mid-doodle. He explains how they tugged a client, the Bombardier beer company, past 75,000 Facebook likes in under a year.

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Back in the smart zone, former Electronic Arts director of communities Simon Stokes describes how the computer game Battlefield topped the 2013 Social Brands 100 list. “In something like Battlefield, we know how far your longest head-shot is,” he says. “We know how long people play, when they play, what their highest score is. We know when they get stuck and ask for help. We know how they spend money.” But, he says, none of this data can replace the creative genius it takes to create such a beautiful mass-murder simulator.

At the Google Campus just off the “Silicon Roundabout” of Old Street, employees of the Native LDN agency are hosting a seminar on how social media works as a profession, and how to become a social media person who gets paid (which not all social media people do). In a nutshell, to be a good social media slugger, he says you have to be able to “Speak to [people] on a level, like one of their friends”.

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If you’ve ever thought social media gurus could be today’s feng shui consultants or snake oil salesmen, Ben’s presentation might disappoint. There is little mystery or magic, but lots of cynical yet obvious logic. In fact, a lot of this stuff is so obvious I can’t believe people think they need to have this confirmed. For example: “Popularity of posts is a good measurement of determining what topics and types of content resonate best with the community.” What’s perhaps more interesting, though, is that social media agencies do claim to have a golden touch when it comes to pressing people’s socio-linguistic buttons, not unlike certain television mentalists.

The big boys like Google and Electronic Arts have access to big data on their users, which means they don’t have to divine which combinations of images, words and sounds resonate with them. It’s all there in a graph, which can be extrapolated to map future behaviour. With complex telemetering techniques, they can design programmes to keep their users pecking at a keypad like lab monkeys. But Simon Stokes from Electronic Arts says designing products based purely on telemetric data is a dangerous business. “There is a difference between playability and addiction creation.”

Social media companies use more telepathic intuition than telemetry to construct their messages, even if the end result is the same. With a carefully constructed dialogue between a client and its followers, social media agencies aim to “Turn a loved brand into an adored brand.” When I asked Nick Beck after the session how the masses benefit from these dialogues, he wouldn’t let me record his answer on a dictaphone.

As Jenna and George from the Native LDN agency and Ben from Tug say, to be successful in social media, copywriters have to use the brand’s “tone of voice” at all times. Get to know the brand’s tone of voice and OWN IT. OWN THAT TONE OF VOICE. Snatch the brand’s tone of voice from its throat like a predator. Speak, write and urinate with the brand’s tone of voice.

Recognise those little quivers when you know the brand is lying, and turn them into a soliloquy of certain virtue. Watch Edward Norton’s performance in Primal Fear and see how he owns it, turning the voice of an insane killer into that of an innocent altar boy. Use prayer, osmosis, puppetry and ventriloquism if need be when summoning that tone of voice (if snatching it didn’t work). Speak, write, compose text messages and correspond with your mother in the brand’s tone of voice. Be the brand. Speak for it, and It will speak for You.

With their “Army, drinking and pub-related content”, the campaign Tug orchestrated for Bombardier uses the tone of voice you normally associate with rural UKIP candidates. Regarding not only an English beer brand whose mascot is a TV actor from the Eighties dressed as St. George, the English dragon-slayer, but in social media generally, Jenna and George say it’s better to have 500 people who love you than 500 people who know you’re right. When applying for a job in social media, though, it’s probably best not to use Bombardier’s nor a rural UKIP candidate’s tone of voice.

When Native LDN were recruiting recently, they asked candidates to tweet them something about the song “C’est la Vie” by Nineties pop outfit B*Witched. To get a job in social media, they say you have to STAND OUT and BE SOCIAL. “If you want a job in social you always have to place yourself in the space you want to be.” This means spending a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter and knowing how the millions of other people who use these platforms behave; what pushes their buttons and so forth. The place to start is demonstrating your hipness with the lowest common denominator: a moronic pop band from the Nineties.

George and Jenna say it’s about “understanding people’s social personalities” – and being able to manipulate them (my words). The new currency in this world, then, doesn’t seem to be intellectual, ethical or even economic at its core. It’s about people liking you, and being able to drop messages into the social hierarchy by whispering in the ears of popular people, known in the trade as “influencers”. There are employees at Native LDN whose job is to target these influencers and enlist them as “brand ambassadors”. They are given freebies, cash money or even just a valuable retweet for repeating a message down the hallowed corridors of social networks.

It’s a strange world, where everybody wants to be loved but few can be trusted. It seems to me that by joining social networks, we’re playing a big game of Chinese whispers, and when you stand at the end of the line, all the voices sound like they’re saying exactly the same thing: we’re all still insecure about not being liked enough.