The “Fire Tetrahedron” of Social Media
Most of us learned about the Fire Triangle back in grade school. To burn, a fire needs three things: fuel, a heat source, and oxygen. Take away one of those things, and you can extinguish the fire. But there is also something called the Fire Tetrahedron: Add a chemical chain reaction to the fire, once ignited, and it feeds itself. It becomes significantly harder to extinguish.
Social media runs on things commonly called “social proof” and “engagement.”
Social proof is a lot like a middle-school popularity contest.
Engagement requires slightly more than passive eye-rolling from observers. The trick is to get your “followers” to do something. Basic engagement could be as simple as clicking the thumbs-up icon on Facebook. “Yay, you,” thinks the user. “Whatever.” If you can get them to spend a little more effort – to change the thumbs-up to a heart emoji, for example – you actually got something like a “reaction” out of them. But the holy grail of engagement – getting a thing to “go viral” or “spread like wildfire” online – requires the equivalent of fuel, a heat source, and oxygen. Add in a chain reaction – getting others to share and build on it – and “the algorithm” (a mythical, poorly-understood, often reverentially referenced or cursed) will “reward” you with its attentions.
Will it reward you with sales? Will it reward you with paying jobs as an internet “influencer”?
Honestly, I’m not sure what the ROI is on this largely thoughtless, mechanical attention. Some businesses see it as a matter of economic life or death, while others wisely ignore the whole thing. I think it depends on how much customers need, or more importantly, want, to interact with their favorite brands online and how good the social media teams behind those brands are at making their customers feel special.
That said, when individuals get caught up in playing “Burn, Baby, Burn!” on social media, it can come across as desperately pathetic. My theory is that it is killing genuine conversation and relationships online, spoiling everyone’s fun, and will eventually lead to burn-out and the (possibly overdue) death of social media altogether. Unfortunately, it will drag things like “community” with it, because by the time it’s all said and done, we’ll be so tired of each other we’ll wish we were hermits.
Advertisers have long known that there are three things that reliably sell product: sex, fear, and death. You don’t need all three, but a combination of any of these three elements is best. Thus, “fear of sex” is good; “fear of dying in the middle of sex” is even better. Buy condoms and life insurance.
The fuel for engagement is a good story, a controversial opinion, a funny meme, or a cute cat. Throw in fear, sex, or death, and you’ve got a winning formula, for sure! “Fear of dying without ever getting laid” is another good one, and it’s not an unreasonable fear for those obsessed with promoting their “personal brand” and “going viral” on social media. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your “personal brand” or “going viral” with a good post, but when it requires the equivalent of an over-smoothing filter and animated sparklies on your entire life – when you start talking about “curating” your Instagram or “optimizing” your LinkedIn profile, consider the possibility that, as a living, breathing, flawed and ordinary human, you may be taking the whole thing too far.
Speaking of taking the whole thing too far, if your goal is to appear trustworthy and employable, don’t steal others’ good stories from somewhere else on the internet, then try to pass them off on LinkedIn as your own.
To get a “Like” requires very little effort beyond your followers’ desire to make sure you feel “seen” and validated. I could click “Like” all day, just to make you feel good about yourself. This is where a little pot-stirring can come in handy. In today’s powder-keg of social media, you probably don’t want to ask “Why isn’t cannibalism a good idea for population control?” Asking whether it’s okay to put pineapples or anchovies on pizza is about the right amount of heat. If you want to stand out from the crowd, don’t be an ordinary troll.
In all seriousness, the unethical social media “influencers” and wannabe “influencers” out there rival the number of zombies it would take to equal an “apocalypse.” Avoid giving them oxygen – also known as “attention.” It’s harder than you think. For years, we’ve been told “don’t feed the trolls.” We are still feeding the trolls. But next time you’re really tempted to share something from someone you don’t know, personally, stop and think, “Do I really want to do this? What are they gaining from it? Do I want to give them that?”
I’m not going to share the original links that prompted me to write the following posts on LinkedIn, but with very little effort, you could find them. And there are countless more examples – these are but two drops in a sea of superficiality and nonsense.
You are the chemical chain reaction. Each time you share, you fuel the fire and fan the flames. Before you do that, here are a few things to think about:
- Does the headline match the content or is it just “click bait” that will set a reader up for disappointment?
- If the thing you’re sharing is a news article, is it grounded in fact? Is it written by an ethical journalist or published by a reputable, reasonably-unbiased media outlet? Are sources cited, so that you can verify for yourself that the original information says what the article claims it says? Have you ever done that – checked the original sources to see if they say what it’s claimed they say?
In 2008, a friend forwarded the email (shown on a blue background, dated Jan 6, 2008, though there were earlier versions of it as well) to me and asked me if it could be true. The original email contained a live link to snopes.com – where snopes is mentioned. Click the blue text – sure enough, there’s an article on snopes debunking the email itself. It was at this point I started paying closer attention to politics and political parties, and realized just how much seething hostility and lies lurked under the surface. None of this serves us, the people of this nation – or the world. None of it.
- If what you’re sharing is an opinion piece, is it clearly presented as such, and is the bias clearly understood by all? Do you agree with the content of the opinion piece you’re sharing, or do you just think it’s a funny, catchy headline that sums up a thought you had – until you thought more deeply on the subject? Read A Pillow Full of Feathers before sharing.
Good things to share include:
- A story about yourself, that’s true. Be sure to include details and avoid all temptation to exaggerate the heroic bits, unless someone else is the hero and you are thanking them.
- A story about someone you know personally, provided you were involved in the action or have their permission to tell the story where you intend to share it.
- Artwork posted by an artist-friend, which they shared online and which has sharing buttons you can use – to promote them and their art. (In other words, share – don’t download, then upload a copy of their art to your post!)
- Stories, poems, and blog posts written by your friends, which they shared online and which have sharing buttons you can use – to promote them and their writing. (In other words, share – don’t copy and paste their words into a new post of your own.)
- Links to books friends have had published, so that people can find out more and buy them.
- A funny meme found on a site full of funny memes, or a photo found on a free stock photo site – shared in accordance with their Terms of Service.
- A thought-provoking question and discussion of a topic that interests you.
- A poll you made.
- A compliment or expression of thanks to someone.
- A funny cat video (again, of your own cat – or use the proper sharing buttons!)
This is just the tip of the iceberg of social media awfulness and how to avoid igniting the trashpile and feeding the flames. Let’s all resolve to do better in 2022, lest we contribute to the downfall of civilization.
Any more tips you’d like to share? Please, add them in the comments!