Last week, I took seven days' holiday, in a remote cottage on the Suffolk coast. There was no phone signal. I switched off the WiFi. I cooked some locally caught fish. Then I sat in front of the log burner and read The Circle, Dave Eggers' controversial Google satire.
Eggers is a star of contemporary American fiction and, like his equally talented peer Jonathan Franzen, a deep sceptic of 'technoconsumerism'. His novel is a bit clunky, but it makes brilliant, albeit painfully resonant, reading for anyone who works in social media. As his heroine, Mae Holland, becomes indoctrinated by her new employer, a slick, data-hungry internet corporation called The Circle, she reduces her identity to a thousand tick-box surveys and comes to believe that sharing every moment of her life is not just a liberating choice, but a moral imperative.
The novel takes a rather dim view of humankind, and Eggers ignores how empowering social media can be when used with purpose and perspective. But his somewhat clunky challenge is both timely and important. It is all too easy to let your sense of purpose and perspective slide, especially when you start to feel that opting out of online sharing amounts to professional suicide.
In your personal sphere, you might find yourself starting to gag at the calculated cool of your tweets, or cringe at the one-upmanship on Facebook. As a marketer enslaved to the idol of content, you may start to suspect that the digital white noise you churn out on behalf of your brand is as hollow as the feeling in the pit of your stomach. Increasingly, you wonder whether you are feeding ego-trolls, rather than strengthening relationships, and you secretly believe that the endpoint of social media marketing is A Billion Brain-Numbing Branded Buzzfeed Lists, with their guarantee of easy likes, shares and click-throughs.
Our sense of disillusionment is very real, and we need to listen closely to what it is telling us, but we would be unwise to underestimate the self-correcting power of the internet. As established platforms become over-commercialised and clogged with crap, a new generation of apps and platforms are aiming to reinstate something of the serendipity and yes, even anonymity, of the early social media landscape.
Take VSCO Cam, a photography app that stormed onto the scene in 2012, securing over a million downloads in its first week. VSCO (short for Visual Supply Co.) started out as an in-house editing tool, amassing a cult following for its outstanding 'presets' (filters to you and me). In 2013, the company took a dip into social networking by introducing the 'Grid', a minimalistic image-sharing stream that opens automatically when you run the VSCO Cam app.
It may look like a sleek Instagram, but VSCO Grid is a very different beast. You can't leave comments on photos; you can't even 'like' them. You can follow other users, but recommendations get served by the VSCO team themselves, not an algorithm. The emphasis is on curating quality content, not playing status games; there are no trashy memes or wobbly selfies, and VSCO founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze claim that the platform will never focus on numbers or adopt the bolt-ons of a traditional social network.
Any brand with great visuals or a design-based offering would be mad not to pay attention to a community where quality of content and depth of emotion reign supreme. Of course, the price of authenticity is a tricky measurement, and any brand with a heavy hand will be quickly ostracised. But VSCO has recently collaborated with Levi's to create a bespoke LV1 preset, which denim fans are using to share images of their jean-clad commute on the Levi's® x VSCO Commuter Grid. It's one example of how both brands and individuals are reclaiming meaning in a crowded space.
Another can be found in Sgrouples, a free platform that lets users 'privately communicate with friends, families and groups' by creating invite-only conversations, free from trolls, frenemies and data thieves. Sgrouples allows users to pick which ads they want to see and which brands they want to interact with, including the option to see no ads at all. No profiling, tracking or media buying is allowed, so if brands want users to subscribe to their feeds, they must raise their game with increasingly useful and delightful content.
We may not have reached the apocalyptic meltdown of The Circle quite yet, and we hopefully never will. But to future-proof the value of social media we must make our sharing matter: less, better, more helpful and on our customers' terms.