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High five: Part 1 of 2

Five big ways that the world of media has changed since the new millennium


Twenty years ago I had just finished as Director of Communications for a major national charity. While many of the pressures and priorities of a Director of Communications are the same today as they were then, the biggest difference is the rise of social media. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have Facebook or Instagram or TikTok, or YouTube or Twitter or any of the other social media so dominant in our lives now. And these social media have transformed the challenges of communicating as a charity (or any other kind of organisation). Indeed, what is absolutely clear is that social media are not just an addition to the communications channels that exist, they have changed the other remaining ‘mainstream’ channels too.

Here are the five big trends, driven by the rise of social media, as I see them:

Trend 1: Print and word media down, social and video media up

The decline of newspaper and print media over the last 20 years has been dramatic. In 2000 the print revenue of US newspapers peaked; since then, it has declined from about $60 billion to around $15 billion, while the online newspaper revenue is less than $5 billion. In the UK, in 2003 the Daily Mail sold 2.5 million copies a day; now it sells 900,000 copies a day. The decline of other newspapers has been equally dramatic: the Guardian is roughly a quarter of the print copies it was 20 years ago, and the Daily Express around a fifth.

The rise of the internet has also changed the way that news is produced; it’s now not only continuously updated, but it has also led to a massive explosion in bloggers and social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. These are much more frequently the source of people’s information about the world. Over 70% of Americans use Facebook, and half of all Facebook users, say they get their news from it. It’s important to note that it is not just an offline to online shift, but also a shift from words to photo and videos, and a long to short form shift. As with so many social trends, it is the smartphone as much as the internet that has made these changes possible.

Trend 2: Policy and ‘serious news’ down - people and personalities are the new stars

With the decline of print and word media has come a decline in ‘serious news’ carefully crafted and written over days or weeks. Instead we have been swamped by the rise of people and personality-based information. It is celebrities who are the new mass communicators: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Ellen de Generes all have well in excess of 100 million followers on social media.

And that communication power can be used. Taylor Swift’s endorsement of Democrats on Instagram in 2018 is said to have caused a spike in voter registrations - more than 160,000 people are said to have registered in the 48-hour period after the singer posted her statement. Alongside celebrities are those thousands of ‘influencers’ whose entire living and fame is based on social media activity: Charli d'Amelio (nearly 50 million followers on Tik Tok), PewDiePie (100 million followers on YouTube), and beauty influencer Huda Kattan (over 50 million followers) are but 3 examples. This trend means that any notion of news coverage based on the importance of a story is hugely diminished, and the appeal of the people or their personalities greatly increased. Far more people are likely to know Justin Bieber has married Hayley Baldwin, or that Rihanna is going to do Superbowl in 2023, than that 1 in 3 in children in the UK live in poverty

Trend 3: Truth and facts in decline - what’s interesting is now what really matters

It’s easy to think that the media is all about the search for the truth, or revealing important news stories. Well, maybe once it was. Now, however, people are much more likely to click on a story about a cute puppy, gossip about a celebrity, or a story about someone getting free chicken nuggets for life. I am writing this on the day that the pound has fallen to its lowest level ever against the dollar. What are the most read and watched pieces on the BBC website? Well the Duke in charge of King Charles’ coronation has been banned from driving is the most read, and a family whose children are going to go blind due to a genetic condition, are travelling the world is the most watched. For many people, social media ‘people’ stories are the tonic and escapism in a depressing world.

Charities tend to think that numbers of people who are suffering matter, and serious policy issues matter; increasingly these are less irrelevant, and it’s the moving stories about babies who need medical treatment that often catch the public eye – witness the near £2 million that the parents of baby Charlie Gard raised for his treatment in 2017. To keep their stories relevant, charities need to be interesting and human first and get their fact-based policy message across second.

Trend 4: Established mass media outlets in decline, while social media outlets soar

As the mass media outlets of newspaper and TV have declined, they have been supplemented by the rise of user-chosen social media sources. So each of us chooses our own mix of media feeds. The days of the all-powerful newspaper editors have waned, though individuals like Rupert Murdoch still wield power. A few politicians like Donald Trump or Narendra Modi have exploited this trend to talk directly to ‘their people’ brilliantly on social media (though Trump went too far and got banned).

Equally, many people are their own social media editor, carefully sending articles, updates and photos to all their friends and family. And in the case of the Youtuber PewDiePie far beyond just friends and family. He has over 100 million followers overall and 28.5 billion views. He is the product of the social media age, and there are thousands of others like him who make their living off their social media success.

This doesn’t mean we no longer hear serious news stories, but they are ‘filtered’ by our social and personal news feeds, and by a variety of new media sources who provide a cocktail of ‘fake news’, alternative viewpoints and entertainment. Yet I wonder how many charities still spend far more energy trying to influence the dying newspaper and TV media, than get content into the output of social media influencers.

Trend 5: The all-powerful newspaper editor is a dying breed: the user and the algorithm choose everything

In this world the choices are endless. This is part of a broad rise in choice in society. There are now 80,000 different ways you could order a Starbucks beverage, hundreds of mobile phone tariffs, 40,000 products in an average out-of-town supermarket and so on. In a print newspaper the editor decides what we read, now we all decide for ourselves.

These individual choices are enhanced and reinforced by the algorithms that choose the content to suggest for us. Whatever we view, we get suggestions for more of that. This positive reinforcement cycle means that nobody gets the same view of the world. The days of everybody watching the same news or even the same channel are fast declining. BBC 1 viewership declined from 46% of the population to 36% between 2015 and 2022 alone. Streaming media services mean everybody can watch their own personal choice of programmes.

Theoretically this blossoming of choice could bring about a new era of understanding and enlightenment as we are all exposed to new views and perspectives. In practice it probably just means we live in an ‘echo chamber’ where we hear the views we agree with, and ‘don’t choose’ those we disagree with.

The by-products of the social media age

The rise of hate. Sadly, the rise of social media has brought about a rise in hate. Hate speech online has been linked to a global increase in violence toward minorities, including mass shootings, lynchings, and ethnic cleansing. Social media allows people to remain anonymous while expressing deeply unpleasant views – views that they would rarely express to someone’s face.

The polarisation of society. The use of algorithms and people’s personal choices mean that many people only ever hear views that reinforce their prejudices and perceptions. Misinformation and misconceptions go unchallenged, and people have views of other parts of society that polarise, rather than bring together.

Things go viral. The vast majority of all the millions of posts every day on social media disappear without a trace, read by a tiny number of people. However, a few go viral, where social media can spread clips around the world. ‘Charlie bit my finger’ was an early example ( ). Most viral examples are lovely, warm life-affirming cute content. But not always.

A rise in meritocracy. Theoretically social media can be a highly meritocratic place. It's not school, or university, or parentage, colour of skin, or accent, or wealth that dictates success. Those who succeed on social media are rarely the big organisations or institutions, they are the people who have the creativity or skills (or celebrity) that others want to follow.

The Beeston Family are a good example. They make endless videos of their (fairly banal) everyday lives, and have 2 million followers on YouTube. It is meritocracy, where anybody can succeed based on their skills, but I don’t think it is what many idealists had in mind when they dreamed of a meritocratic society.

The rise and rise of cute cats and dogs and everything else! I started this section talking about the rise of hate, and I’ll finish talking about the rise of cute. There are a lot of weird, whimsical and cute videos in the world thanks to social media. Here’s just one collection:

Winners and losers in the brave new world

Some of the winners are:

  • Celebrities. Celebrities and innovative individuals are the real winners. Celebrities are able to talk directly to their fanbase if they so wish unhindered by the editing of others.

  • Pluralism. It’s probably fair to say that the world of social media has allowed a blooming of an astonishing breadth of opinions. Not all of it very savoury, and some of it pretty bonkers.

  • Innovators. To really succeed in social media it is vital to be innovative, to be direct, or charismatic, or have great stories to tell.

Some of the losers are:

  • The dull. Those organisations with dull (even if important) messages are often the losers, essentially if their work can’t be distilled into a few short sentences. It’s no coincidence that big celebrities (Katy Perry, etc) have far more followers than the biggest companies (Starbucks, Xbox and Samsung Mobile all have around 11, 19.8 and 12.5 million respectively) or global charities or agencies (such as Unicef or WWF have around 9.3 and 3.9 million respectively)

  • The slow. Any organisation who wants to flourish on social media needs to respond quickly and 24/7.

  • The formal. If an organisation makes its social media output sound like a form of corporate-speak it will be hard for it to get traction or generate interest.

What does all this mean for charities?

Charities and good causes can flourish in the new world of media. But they need to play to some natural strengths and suppress some of their corporatist urges.

Be personal. Scratch beneath the surface of any charity, large or small, and there are a raft of people doing amazing work. Those people are the ones who should be the epicentre of social media feeds, rather the anonymous messages/third person speak from a corporate HQ.

Tell stories. The stories that charity staff, volunteers and beneficiaries have to tell could be inspirational and go to the heart of a charity’s mission and work. It is stories that appeal to people’s hearts and open their wallets. It is stories, rarely stats, that make supporters.

Use photos and videos. Here’s a simple test. How many photos are there on your website homepage of real people with their stories? And now how many videos? In a world where the fastest growing social media is the video-based TikTok, it’s amazing how many charities still let words and anonymous photos dominate their websites and media output.

Take risks. Nobody breaks the mould by doing what everybody else has done. Charities who want to stand out from the thousands, nay – millions, of other media choices need to try things out, take risks, be prepared to fail, and innovate, innovate, innovate.

Woo influencers. The people with real communications reach now are not the national media, but the influencers and celebrities with millions of followers. Charities need to work out how to persuade those influencers to cover their work and deliver their messages, just as much as they need to persuade national and local media to do the same.

And finally

And in part 2 of this report, we will look at who is and isn’t doing great stuff in the world of non-profits and social media.

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October 2022



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