C-A-T-S Cats Cats Cats: Why social media is empathic
“I would love your job – you get to play on Facebook all day.”
At least once a week I hear some variation of that statement, and I always smile to myself. Not because it’s a frustrating statement to contradict, I smile because it confirms a long-standing theory: social media is inherently a selfish engine.
Instead of coming together as a community, researchers have actually seen trends to indicate the opposite.
“The revolutions in technology make it easy to connect, but it’s connecting in a peer-to-peer way. It’s not ‘I’m connecting to this group or organization,'” said Dr. Bernie Hogan, a senior researcher at Oxford University’s Internet Institute, in a BBC interview. “It’s not ‘I’m connecting to this group’, it’s ‘I’m connecting to this individual.’ It leads to a sense of us being very ‘networked’ rather than very grouped.”
It’s true, when you think about it. There are more than 7 billion people on this planet and nearly half use the Internet. That boils down to roughly 65 percent of all adults use social media about two hours out of the day. They post, they comment, like, share, tweet, re-tweet, wash, rinse and repeat. The Internet has become easy to access – we check our phones more than 175 times per day.
Three years ago, a question showed up on Reddit that perfectly summarized these changing times.
Scroll down down a bit and you see one of the most popular answers, aside from, “Elizabeth II is still the Queen of England,” and you’ll see a very poignant answer – for the Internet, at least.
“I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.”
How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Cats
Cats are great – I have two and one is diabetic. So, for me, cats are about 50 percent great. Consider, though, that since August 2015:
- More than 2 million YouTube videos are devoted to cats
- Cat memes see more than 100,000 views a month
- The single YouTube video, Nyan Cat, has 134,599,305 views to its name.
Why – why cats? I write this as Nyan Cat plays in the background, because I can’t bring myself to turn it off. The answer is simple: cats improve our mood. Assistant Professor Jessica Gall Myrick from Indiana University asked 7,000 people how they felt before and after watching videos of cats. The results found that people felt happier and less anxious or sad after watching videos of cats.
This is important – important enough to make a note of it. We all remember the #BrusselsLockdown. Belgian Police, in an effort to preserve the integrity of the investigation and search for the individuals responsible, asked people on the Internet to stop using the hashtag “BrusselsLockdown” to post, tweet or share content. So, the Internet did what the Internet does – went back to its roots.
Within minutes, the entire global social media network was flooded with cats: cat memes, pictures of cats, cat gifs – all with the hashtag“BrusselsLockdown.” It was brilliant. Any information that the criminals could use to gain insight into the investigation was instantly lost in a sea of cats.
Cats alone are not going to solve world problems or enhance your messages and brand image. Cats do, however, open a very critical doorway into the science behind successful social media. There are five elements that, when applied strategically and scientifically, can actually result in consistent engagement enhancement:
- Appeal – What does your audience care about? What will resonate with them on an emotional level? More importantly, what will immediately and profoundly answer the question of “why should I care about this?”
- Social Identity – Otherwise known as “informational social influence,” or “social proof.” This is not a new concept. People will engage and share content that aligns with a group they identify with – sometimes, regardless of how factually accurate or realistic the content is. Leveraging social identity is a gateway to enhancing engagement and fostering commitment over compliance throughout your audience.
- Connection – Your platforms cannot be robotic. You need a voice. You need to come across as a human being to your audience. Think about this – what does your social media network sound like? Giving these platforms a voice and a personality creates a connection with your audience. It is no secret that recently studies have shown that people have stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers. The trick is, your audience can spot fake empathy a mile away. If you are not authentic – you will quickly lose that connection you worked so hard to develop.
- Feeling – Emotion drives our decision-making processes – much more than we think. Developing and producing content that invokes, nurtures and amplifies audience emotion brings with it a dedicated, core group of followers – who don’t just accept what you tell them, they believe in why you inspire them. Couple this with the appeal of the “why” and you will begin to engage on a much deeper level, and for a much longer period of time.
- Social Justice – Don’t let anyone tell you differently – our values still mean something to us. Social identity, however, only shows us the yellow-brick road. Social Justice is actually taking that first step. It is the action that flows from these engagement tips. It is following the yellow-brick road to the Emerald City. Without the ability to act on the engaging content created, though, your audience feels helpless. They begin to feel stressed, and they begin to blame your platform and social media in general. As responsible content producers, providing an action your audience can take serves as an outlet for that frustration, that stress and anxiety. The easier the action is and the more native it is to their smartphone, the stronger the connection becomes between your platform and the audience.
Looking back at cats, crisis communication and engagement tips, strategic social media management taught me a couple of things about how the world is changing:
- Even in the direst of circumstances there can be humor and hope. Not only did the cat memes help police conduct their search and investigation, they also, statistically speaking, made people feel better.
- Engagement can’t be a shot in the dark, and it can’t be forced or faked. You have to legitimately care about the people within your audience.
Effectively, you have to humanize the network. This led to a bit of an epiphany about social media.
Social media is empathic. Social media is alive.
It’s Alive! It’s Alive!
Social media had been around years before Facebook launched in 2004, with the first blogs kicking off about a decade earlier. Who remembers Xanga, right? However, it wasn’t until “the facebook” that we began seeing these platforms as something that wasn’t a trend or a fad – it was a collective shift.
So why is it empathic? If social media simply networks us without grouping, then how can it have empathy? Simply put, social media is evolving. The way we communicate has not only changed in the last century, it has rapidly accelerated. It only takes an analysis of social media trends to see that has the potential to serve as a modern example what of French sociologist Émile Durkheim proposed in his Division of Labour in Society in 1893.
Social media is a collective consciousness. In such a way that it is the set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes, which operate as a unifying force within society. While social media is not uniting us as a species – it has the power to transform the way we communicate and understand one another. It can raise armies, topple governments and influence politics. While it can do all those things, what it can’t do them independently of content producers, and audience members. Social media is like a child that needs to be nurtured. Rather than look at it as a detached platform, examine it as an entity that is growing, developing and directly influenced by your actions.
Here are some tips on how to nurture social media, as you would nurture a child:
- Be aware of the platform developmental stages – which may mirror child development stages. For example:
- Platforms, like children, love to look at new faces very early in their development. They cling to the familiar, and are startled by sudden changes or shifts in the world around them.
- Fast forward a few months and the platform begins to demonstrate appropriate behavior in response to audience participation. Even though they may show stranger anxiety, they begin to explore beyond their established boundaries.
- After a few years, parallel play begins. Sharing between other platforms, cross-utilization of content and cooperation serves to broaden horizons. Constant monitoring begins to lessen as the platform explores further and engages more.
- Encourage the expression of feelings, while respecting the feelings of others within the scope of the platform. Learn the source of those feelings and directly engage with them in a positive manner. Responding with anger will only cause future engagement to develop along that path.
- Listen! Encourage questions and provide a comfortable medium for communication and assurance. Always be honest with your audience. Don’t ignore the negatives, but focus on the positives.
- As the strength of audience engagement grows, begin to expand the platform to meet new expectations, handle different problems and share new experiences.
- Don’t expect perfection. This is a demanding job – much like being a parent, it requires constant adaptability, patience and understanding.
All The Feels
This is where “playing” on Facebook all day stops becoming just a job. Just as social media is empathic, social media managers must also be empathic. They need to understand that empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.
Working in Public Affairs, we are taught to identify our key audiences and communicate in ways they will understand and appreciate. Arguably, we struggle with this – especially in regards to social media. Mostly because we still treat social media as we would treat a static website – we don’t understand it.
Most of the time, the social media pages I look at, within the sphere of my profession, suffer from the “all business all the time” mindset. They spend all their time promoting the image or brand they are trying to represent. It comes across as emotionless and unfeeling, which is exactly the opposite of what our social media child needs. Yes, they need rules and they need information and boundaries, but they also need motivation and emotional engagement.
We are trying too hard to control our image, to the point that we are afraid of any kind of social media diversity. Put in terms that are way too touchy feely for online blogging: we are afraid to love our audience. We are afraid to identify with them in a digital realm. We are afraid of things like this:
Developing a social media strategy
Working in the Public Affairs world, we always hear about having a social media strategy. What is your strategy for social media? What are you posting about today? The question that was posed at a conference I recently attended that completely shook my worldview on social media was simple:
“What is your strategy in a world affected by social media?”
Put simply, we live in a rapidly-changing world that is only augmented by social media. Any strategic engagement we have, therefore, must be dynamic. We cannot afford to treat social media as an afterthought because it is old enough now where its development could be positively or adversely impacted by those who use it.
Know your audience. Know who they are, what they care about and what they believe in. Identify with them empathize with them, don’t just spit rhetoric. Challenge every notion you have about how you communicate on social media, in a professional sense:
- Would I share this on my page?
- Would I care about what this post or tweet is saying?
- If you don’t, then who will?
Jarad Denton is a Communications Manager with the U.S. Air Force and self-professed “cat whisperer.” For the past eight years, Jarad has served on active duty at various commands and positions. He is an award-winning writer, photographer, graphic designer and Public Affairs strategist. Jarad has also been a social media and communication evolution keynote speaker at an Air Force Public Affairs conference. He holds an Associate of Science in Public Affairs, Bachelor of Arts in English, Master of Business Administration and a Master of Science in Finance, which he hopes will serve to augment his cat whispering profession.