In an article published in the Journal of Consumer Research, USC Professor Robert Kozinets uses the example of foodporn to convincingly illustrate that social media are “networks of desire” that fuel our passion for consumption and our need to connect. They are persuasive technologies designed for us to want them and use them often. Together with equally needy smartphone technology, they create a web of temptation that is difficult for contemporary consumers to escape. When that artistically arranged plate arrives at their restaurant table, social media users feel an irresistible urge to immediately tell their (real or imagined) social media audience about it.
The same theme is central to the recent documentary “People’s Republic of Desire,” which presents a dystopian look at livestreamers hooked on fame, money and their entertainment and status-obsessed fans in China. Livestream platforms and talent agencies alike do everything they can to sustain the mania.
PR and advertising fuel consumer engagement with social media by creating increasingly enticing contents, rewarding responses and enlisting influencers to reel in even more “likes” and “comments” from hyper-targeted audiences. Communication success critically depends on consumers giving in to algorithms that never cease to want more of their attention.
From a communications perspective, the ideal consumer is “always on” and ready to be persuaded. The “Black Mirror” episode “Fifteen Million Merits” in which consumers spend their days pedaling on energy-producing stationary bikes while watching advertising to obtain so-called “merits,” a form of currency, depicts a world that is no longer unimaginable. Even when in their resting cells, every inch of their walls bombards them with sponsored content, unless they have enough merits to pay for an advertising-free environment.
Limiting “screen time” for children has become a ubiquitous aspect of parenting. But who is helping adult consumers switch off? Technological deceleration, digital detox, technology mindfulness, Facebook sabbatical, neo-luddism and off-the-grid lifestyle are concepts that have entered public discourse and are increasingly turned into business strategies. Tourism Switzerland advertises hotels with limited connectivity, yoga studios offer reboot workshops, mobile apps like Offtime and Flipd promise control over social media addictions, office spaces are converted into tech-free zones, and pop-up events promote settings in which humans along with their smartphones can go into flight mode.
While the fear of missing out (FOMO in social media lingo) characterized much of consumer life over the past 10 years, the joy of missing out (JOMO) is catching on in important ways. As a concept, it suggests that much can be gained from staying off social media and having technology-free experiences.
However, while some businesses seem eager to capitalize on helping consumers embrace JOMO, companies in general seem reluctant to acknowledge their role in feeding the social media addiction problem. Instagram has recently limited its users’ ability to view “likes” on Instagram posts. They did this supposedly to reduce the potentially negative effect of their platform on the mental health of young consumers. More likely, they were motivated by the ability to sell the now hidden information to those who need to benchmark the effectiveness of their social media communication efforts. In general, very little appears to be happening on corporate accounts in terms of encouraging followers to be responsible social media users.
Selected pharmaceutical companies are currently facing accusations of having actively triggered the opioid crisis with aggressive marketing techniques. Will PR and communication professionals at some point in the future be made accountable for their role in promoting social media addictions?
At the very minimum, they need to recognize that consumer awareness of and resistance against social media dependence is mounting. If PR and communication professionals are not careful, they might be killing the social media goose that currently lays the shiny, golden eggs. Ideally, they need to devise responsible social media communication plans that produce effective contents without exploiting consumers’ inability to resist the carefully engineered social media temptations.
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