Two recent op-ed pieces from the New York Times have been stuck in my brain on repeat over the last week. The first from Arthur C. Brooks titled How Loneliness Is Tearing America Apart and the second from Ruth Whippman called Everything Is For Sale Now. Even Us. Tackling two completely different themes, the editorials overlap in that both link the isolating impact of social media to the needs of the gig economy, focusing on the despair that each has imposed on our collective well-being. Mr. Brooks’s piece largely addresses how the lack of a real community is sending society deeper into political divide, but I found this small paragraph poignant to subjects outside of politics as well:
“In the ‘siloed,’ or isolated, worlds of cable television and social media, people find a sense of community in the polarized tribes forming on the left and the right in America. Essentially, people locate their sense of ‘us’ through the contempt peddled about ‘them’ on the other side of the political spectrum.”
Polarizing politics may be front and center in today’s 24-hour news cycle, but all it takes is a few hours on Twitter to realize that almost every subject has become tribally polarized, including opinions about wine and spirits. From whether or not vodka has merit as a beverage to the potential quality of the 2017 Bordeaux harvest, say the wrong thing, or cross the wrong tribe, and you can expect to hear about it. What was supposed to join people in creative thought and expression has instead become a war of utter contempt on many fronts.
With my return to the booze business imminent, I recently joined Twitter for the first time, having learned the importance that outside links play in SEO optimization for Google website rankings. I wanted to improve the ability for people who knew my work to find this blog, so I did the minimum amount of requisite networking to achieve that result before hastily deactivating my account. I’m no stranger to Twitter, as I’ve controlled the social media accounts for both of my previous companies, but I’ve never had the slightest interest in participating as an individual. I could explain why, but I found this paragraph from Whippman’s article, detailing her usage of social media as a writer, perfectly captures my thoughts:
“Like many modern workers, I find that only a small percentage of my job is now actually doing my job. The rest is performing a million acts of unpaid micro-labor that can easily add up to a full-time job in itself. Tweeting and sharing and schmoozing and blogging. Liking and commenting on others’ tweets and shares and schmoozes and blogs. Ambivalently ‘maintaining a presence on social media,’ attempting to sell a semi-fictional, much more appealing version of myself in the vain hope that this might somehow help me sell some actual stuff at some unspecified future time.”
While there are thousands of articles every year commenting on social media’s artificiality, detailing the effects that constant exposure to unattainable standards can have on our self-esteem, what’s interesting about Whippman’s take is that she effectively deconstructs the FOMO-based nature of our work-oriented participation—the idea that we must participate in order to maintain our livelihood (and hopefully “sell some actual stuff at some unspecified future time”). Slogging my way through the swamp of endless booze-related tweets over the last few weeks, I could sense that very desperation everywhere. So much begging for positive reinforcement. So much anguish about nothing. This was supposed to make me excited to drink?
So much of social media feels contrived because it is. It’s marketing being done with the enthusiasm of a child who’s checking another chore off his to-do list before getting on to something more interesting. I know this because I’ve worked with marketers over numerous industries for years to help strategize their output, and so many of them consider tweeting and instagraming to be just another mindless task. Rather than strategically market to a target audience, they’re throwing darts aimlessly, spraying the social media sphere with mindless buckshot rather than a single, well-scoped snipe. Reading through it all makes me both embarrassed and sad; embarrassed because so much of the content feels like it’s filling, as Whippman writes, “a roaring black hole of psychological need,” and sad because, as she continues, “many of us would probably make more money stacking shelves or working at the drive-through than selling our thing” on social media.
There are so many more constructive things we can do to spread the joys of alcohol than simply hover over a laptop, shamelessly pandering to hopeful clients who are already oversaturated with endless marketing spam as is. We could be out there building real communities, full of people sitting face-to-face and talking, drinking with one another, and sharing their passion for all things alcohol-related. Brooks believes that “the challenge to each of us in a country suffering from loneliness and ripped apart by political opportunists seeking to capitalize on that isolation” is to build the real community we want to personally invest in; he adds that “each of us can be happier when we become the kind neighbors and generous friends we wish we had.” Building that foundation is hard and it takes immense effort, which is part of the reason we succumb to the lazy instantaneousness of Twitter. So few people want to recognize the merits of hands-on community building, but I can at least share a few of my professional experiences as examples.
One thing that’s consistent from industry to industry is that all companies measure their…egos…with social media statistics. Most important is the number of followers they have on any given platform. Spend a little time on Twitter, however, and you’ll start to notice that many booze companies and “influencers” with tens of thousands of “followers” often tweet out messages that get little to no engagement. That means one (or both) of two things: they either paid for those followers to artificially improve their social standing, or no one actually gives a shit about what they have to say. Either way, does the sales impact justify the effort? I ran social media for a retailer that had more than 12,000 followers on Twitter, yet we routinely had almost no engagement with the tweets we sent out. Contrast that with the content-driven emails we sent to our client list, and the marketing difference in terms of sales was staggering. The point? Our wine and spirits customers weren’t our Twitter followers. We had a much stronger community as a result of our in-store experience and our extensive website outreach.
The same applied to blogging and online content. I might spend hours writing blogs to improve sales, yet I could double or triple the sales impact of a blog post by spending an hour in the tasting bar with real customers, sampling them on the spirit firsthand, or by hosting a private event at a nearby restaurant. That’s not to say the blogs weren’t important or that they didn’t provide value in other ways, it’s just to say that—when you crunch the numbers—the sales results almost always supported the community-based experience. We focused on selling that community, along with the support system we could provide to those who wanted to be a part of it. With so many people moving to Silicon Valley, we wanted to offer these newcomers a friendly neighborhood spot where they would feel immediately included. As Brooks writes, “we fear the loneliness we are sure to feel as we enter a completely new place,” and my company soothed that fear by providing a retail space where people “know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient.”
But with the emergence of the gig economy and the damage it has caused to longstanding communal spaces, more and more people are forced to search for their community on social media instead of their neighborhood. Brooks adds that “there is profit to be made here” by “the industries that accumulate wealth and power by providing this simulacrum of community that people crave — but cannot seem to find in real life.” In the end, so much of our social media participation is actually based on our desire to be part of something fulfilling, and that desire carries over to those doing the selling! Sometimes it’s hard to know if these booze companies, writers, journalists, and marketers are trying to engage customers or personal admirers. Many seem to have forgotten what real consumers are after, misplacing the human engagement of a prospective client with the self-satisfaction that our egos crave. Whippman notes that, “as long as we are happy to be paid for our labor in psychological rather than financial rewards, those at the top are delighted to comply.” No shit!
Whippman also opines: “This is the future, and research suggests that it’s a rat race that is already taking a severe toll on our psyches. A 2017 study suggests that this trend toward increasingly market-driven human interaction is making us paranoid, jittery, self-critical and judgmental,” and that our mindsets will be continue to be “overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation.” And we wonder why everyone on Twitter is so snarky! Brooks notes: “According to a recent large-scale survey from the health care provider Cigna, most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or left out.” And we wonder why much of the social media landscape feels so desolate!
But if it’s clear that social media isn’t capable of providing people with the community they’re lacking in everyday reality, why aren’t more companies capitalizing on that desire by building real relationships through first-hand experiences? I have a few ideas (laziness, lack of creativity, unwillingness to adapt), but I think they’ve forgotten the art of old-fashioned brand building, cultivating a sense of pride through the association of oneself with the appreciation of a particular product. The answer to a better booze community isn’t more tweets about what bottle you just bought, or what major award your whiskey won this week. If it were that easy, everyone would be content by this point. The answer lies in removing the loneliness and isolation that social media marketing continues to foster, rather than propagating it.
A community isn’t built in 280 characters or less. It’s built with love.