Geri Stengel

 
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Size vs Substance: Should Quantity or Quality Matter in Social Media?

A blog post by Geoff Livingston got Ventureneer's staff buzzing the other day. His premise: Online media rewards mediocrity, celebrity, and mindlessness. Size (thousands of friends) matters more than substance (thoughtful, additions to the world conversation.)

We respectfully disagree. As one commentator put it so well, the effort to simplify an issue tends to polarize it. Both size and substance are valuable and variable.

Ashton Kutcher, malaria, social mediaLet's look at size, as denounced by Livingston who gave as an example the followers of Ashton Kutcher. It is Livingston's contention that Kutcher's massive following is social media madness and has no value.

But it does have value. Kutcher has used Twitter to promote awareness of and fundraising for malaria prevention. Do more of his followers know what he ate for lunch than anything about malaria? Possibly, but that doesn't negate the fact that 90,000 people in Senegal now have malaria nets because Kutcher roused 1 million people to follow him on Twitter.

Would it be better if those 90,000 nets were the result of a well-articulated, substantive educational program on PBS? No, it would not. A mosquito net is a mosquito net.

Yes, Kutcher got a lot of publicity out of the effort. But does the benefit he accrues cut any holes in those 90,000 nets? Nope. I give him credit for the good deed.

First of all, it's rare to find pure altruism in people. Humans always have ulterior motives, even if only assuaging guilt or liking that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you give. If something good is accomplished, let's be happy. Every little bit helps.

And I don't deny that those million followers could do more, give more, be more aware. Indeed they could! But what's that saying, "Little drops of water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the beauteous land." Drop by drop, grain by grain, awareness and action are creating solutions.

Livingston cites Bill Gates as someone social media users "should" listen to, because Gates has more substance than Kutcher. Yes, he does but ... the whole point of social media is that all people, of whatever level of sophistication, can join the conversation, even if they lack the gravitas of Bill Gates. And, just for the record, Gates is no slouch in terms of reach. He has 1.8 million followers. Kutcher has 6 million.

Livingston regards these "mindless millions" using social media as "a huge problem" for those who want to make substantive change. Excuse me? How do you make change if you only write for and value those you deem intelligent enough and like-minded enough to take up your time?

It's marketing 101 (yes, making a substantive change requires marketing!): Reach as many people as possible with your message, as often as possible. From those, some will come into the store; some will buy. Some will become regular customers.

Making a change is about changing minds. It's about educating those who aren't aware, in language they can understand. It's also about finding the flaws in your own thinking by listening to those who come from a completely different place – intellectually, geographically, economically or any other -ly.

Which is not to say that I don't want substantive discussions on social media platforms. I do and there are many. People graduate from one type of discussion to the next as their levels of sophistication and interest go up, as they connect, are educated, and motivated to take action. 

I don't think size or substance is king. We need both.

I think the mindless millions can become mindful social actors if given the time, the connections, and the information to do so.

Do social media lack meaningful content? What determines "meaningful," or "substantive?"