Are you a Twitter or a Facebook person? This was the question posted by a friend recently. The query provoked a fascinating 'thread', as a disparate group of people - most of whom had never met - mused online about how they used social media. Musing, of course, is the wrong word, as neither medium lends itself to the gentle drift of thought it suggests. In fact, contributions were pithy and opinions definite.
Writers were more emphatic in their views than they would have been in a face-to-face conversation, where voice, body language and facial expressions contribute so much to meaning and understanding. Online, a hastily formed opinion can be sent out into the ether without a thought for how it will be received or by whom. This can be wonderfully liberating but can also lend itself to an aggressive and even bullying tone from some unexpected quarters.
Some people favoured the short, sharp declarations that the 140 characters of a tweet encourages, while others preferred the lengthier, more interactive exchanges of Facebook postings. There were sophisticated users who saw social media primarily as a marketing tool for themselves, their books or businesses, while a number of people claimed to have stepped into the murky waters of Facebook only to keep an eye on their children's activities, blissfully unaware that most kids ensure they stay in control of what their parents see of their lives by putting them on restricted view.
An increasing number of users, however, recognise that the power of social media lies in how it can transform simple personal exchanges of opinion into a movement, a crusade or a campaign. This power has been well understood and harnessed by internet sites such as Avaaz.org, a global, multilingual site accessible on smartphones that has over 13 million members and has established a massive political presence. It gives a voice to issues of global concern and is able to act with a nimbleness, flexibility, focus and scale unavailable to conventional politicians addicted to the old-fashioned, top-down communication of the pulpit.
Avaaz canvasses its members on issues such as world poverty, climate change, corruption and human rights. If it collects 10,000 supporters for a cause it will initiate a campaign using online petitions, videos and email-your-leader tools to create a mass movement. Others such as Purpose.com and GetUp are similarly in the business of building and sustaining social movements and translating them into collective citizen and consumer power. These sites constantly monitor online statistics that reveal which campaigns attract most interest among members, enabling them to choose the network's focus.
Companies cannot afford to ignore this kind of power. Their misdeeds or excesses can be subjected to harsh scrutiny and exposure, as illustrated by the huge, orchestrated popular protest against News International and hacking, BP and offshore drilling, and the anti-pesticide campaign, 'Save the Bees', directed against Bayer.
However, social media can also give companies increased access to their customers and fresh insights into their preferences. Because of the way social media invites and enables a conversation, marketing is no longer a one-way pushing out of information. Such dialogue can be of great commercial value because of its immediacy and candour. But this interactivity can be risky. McDonald's famously had its corporate fingers burnt when it tried to communicate via Twitter using the hashtag '#McDStories' in the hope its customers would share happy meal memories. Instead, consumers lashed the company with criticism and it became a forum for dissent. The company had entered the market with a preset mentality only to find itself ambushed by a huge, unanticipated consumer response. It had no alternative but to withdraw rapidly.
Some companies have a more subtle understanding of their customers' preferences and use social media brilliantly. The Guardian's Three Little Pigs ad, by imagining how a classic nursery rhyme would be reported by today's news media, demonstrates the process by which a fast-moving story is created, then develops and changes as people rapidly respond, comment and share information and views via different channels. The ad is vividly illustrative of the newspaper's methods but is also entertaining and as a result has gone viral. The ad communicates in an authentic way, conveying the values of the brand as well as a real understanding of how people consume news.
The best examples of companies working well with social media are those that are able to build a community of interest and engagement between people and at the same time align this with commercial objectives. Jazz FM is a UK broadcaster that became the largest jazz radio station in the world by linking listeners through mobile streaming apps, and allowing them to share the experience via Facebook and Twitter. The company is able to observe and quantify this through sophisticated software that pinpoints listeners as they come online.
Revolutionary fervour, environmental concern and popular revulsion at tabloid phone-hacking have all been aroused by the instant opinion forming and sharing made possible by social media. Ultimately, however, social media is just the latest in a long line of innovative tools, including cave drawings, the quill pen and the telephone, which people have used to satisfy that most fundamental human need ... to connect with one another.
Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director on various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org