In a recent conversation, I was accused of being very critical for saying social media’s broken. While I might have never phrased it so bluntly, it would be a lie if I denied my somewhat differentiated view on the possibilities of social media.
A couple of weeks ago, I gave a TEDx talk in which I publicly said I love social media. I love social media because it allows everyone to be and become the person they want to be. If someone wants to be a photographer, they don’t need a magazine to share their photographs with the world. If someone wants to be a TV moderator, they don’t necessarily need a TV channel to declare them good enough to be one. And if someone wants to be a writer, they don’t need a publishing house to select them as one of a few and proclaim them good enough to be writers. It’s, of course, nice to collaborate with such organizations and professionalize one’s efforts, yet one is free to start off with zero followers and often only need limited funds to get a venture off the ground. As someone who’s published three books that still sell via Amazon and also created several travel guides one can buy on Etsy, I’d say I have a general understanding of what’s possible when you use the internet as a tool. For my projects, I acquired the needed seed funding via Kickstarter and never needed to convince a professional gatekeeper before I began working on any of these projects.
Since last year, I’ve been teaching social media for designers at the New Design University in St. Pölten. In 2016, the university where I studied approached me about teaching one of their elective courses. There was no specific curricula, so I was free to decide what I thought was essential to convey within the 22.5 hours I have with the students.
In my lectures, I don’t talk much about the algorithms of the different platforms. I know these will be changing in a way I myself can’t comprehend and certainly not predict. I want the students to understand the bigger picture. I don’t really talk about Instagram and Facebook all that much. Just like MySpace, StudiVZ, uboot, MSN, ICQ, and who knows what other platforms, also the ones that have been around for a while, they will all eventually be replaced or how we use them will change.
My approach to social media might be different. Often, I find myself explaining the difference between community management and social media management, and thus I’d like to explain what I do with my students in my lectures on social media.
I’ll either I ask my students to come up with a project proposal and either share their progress for 100 consecutive days (which is an exercise based on my observations of the Great Discontent’s collaboration with Elle Luna). Or, I ask them to create a collection of creative products and sell those through one of the platforms available (my approach to how I use social), which is an exercise that invites students to think about marketing and sales. I don’t judge the quality of my students’ output, and they’re also free to start a new account or even use a fake name if they don’t feel comfortable attaching their name to the quality of what they create when they first start. With my lectures and how the assignment is designed, I encourage creativity, curiosity, and the willingness to practice.
We live in times where people strive for perfection. We only show perfect work. We only show our perfect vacations. We only show the best sides. Such one-sided perspective has effects on how we feel about ourselves after using social media, which is what’s often discussed in the news.
Anyone who’s worked with teens and students, or even has honest conversations with adults, will realize what affect such an approach to social media has on the mental health of people. Thus, in the first lecture, I talk about how social media has changed what’s possible to achieve for creatives and how everyone can use it as a tool to find and be found by their community online. I talk about gatekeepers. I explain my journey and how I got to be where I am today, and most importantly, I talk about the creative process. I show this video:
A question I get asked a lot is: “How do I gain followers and likes?” My answer to that is: “Come up with something that’s close to your heart that you already do or would like to learn more about and improve.” I ask my students to make, and I ask my students to create. I believe that the people who connected with you because of something you’re passionate about will be the most valuable people for your projects and your passion. I don’t care if that’s five people or 50,000 – that’s why I teach how to frame creative projects and genuinely talk about them.
There’s no cheap and easy way to build up a reputation overnight. Success on social media is a multiplication of courage (to share what you’re curious about), creativity (the willingness to improve your skills), and continuity (it takes a while for people to recognize the value in your work).
If someone opts in to create a collection and sell it, the real ask is for them to think hard about how they create value and communicate it to their potential customers. The task is to adopt a service and human-centered mindset instead of just following their personal curiosity and practicing dedication to personal development.
To my surprise – and with much acknowledgment for their dedication – most of my students opt in for the #100day challenge.
Do you remember Nir Eyal’s book Hooked? When I first read it in 2014, I was trying to figure out how we needed to adapt various product features of Somewhere.com to make people come back. To me, social media had a huge potential to revolutionize the way we converse. I saw it as a tool to encourage bottom-up movements. I believed the internet would be a place to find “the others,” which was also the guiding sentence of what we were doing at Somewhere. We wanted people to find their like-minds to collaborate.
To me, social media was social, and it’s also how I’ve used it since my early teens.
When I first moved to Austria in 2000, I used to go on ICQ and find people in the area. I chatted to them for some time and eventually met for a coffee. Social Media was an incredible way to find mentors and learn from inspiring people. Instagram, for example, has made it easy to create meaningful connections and I met many people on these platforms.
However, and due to the continuous professionalization of different platforms, social media has become less about connecting people. In my personal view, it’s become less “social.” Instead, brands now use social media to advertise their products. I’d even say, social has become much more about e-commerce.
Research indicates using social media has increased – not decreased – loneliness and depression. Facebook’s own former president, Sean Parker, said their platform was “exploiting the vulnerability in human psychology.” To me, and as a lecturer, I feel I’m responsible for helping my students understand how to use social in ways that won’t cause any of that, while also teaching them how to not have such an effect on others.
In a way, social media has always been about e-commerce. Thanks to social, creators can find customers. Once brands have become aware of the potential of these alternative platforms to their somewhat traditional sales channels, they too began using social to help boost their revenue. What happened is that the big fish started fishing in the ponds of the small fish, and while it’s still possible to generate revenue as a small fish, it must be acknowledged it’s become harder.
That’s why I use this lecture to raise awareness of how different social platforms generate revenue and help them understand how they can utilize these platforms to make a living. In this second lecture, we discuss the different business model of different platforms. We discuss what their role is on the different platforms; we talk about them as consumers and as creators, and we also talk about how to use the different platforms to build their own livelihood by becoming creators.
I believe that if someone understands the business model of a platform and a company, that they can also understand what role such company wants for them to play. I believe that gaining awareness of a company’s motivation enables everyone to make conscious decisions and choices, and to think about what role they want to play in the bigger construct of social channels.
In this lecture, I also show the first part of Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self to teach my students more about propaganda. I also discuss with them the main concepts described in Martin Lindstrom’s book Brandwashed.
It’s hard for me to even imagine how it was when access to knowledge was limited to what someone pre-selected to make available at “my” local library. We have a vast amount of information, inspiration, and the possibility to get direct advice at our fingertips at any moment. Most of us carry the necessary devices in our pockets. When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing what’s possible.
In the third lecture, my students and I talk about collaboration and networking. In a way, it’s something I focus on in all of my lectures, given I ask my students to only give feedback using “yes, and..” instead of using “but.” I want for my students to proactively think about how they could contribute to someone else’s success, and help others get ahead with their projects. I don’t tolerate negativity. I want for my students to listen to others and build on top of one another’s ideas.
In each and every lesson, we discuss what’s happened since we last saw each other and what reactions everyone’s been getting about their projects. I team up my students in small groups and have them give feedback for each other’s projects and genuinely offer support.
In this third lecture, we also talk about how they can turn their projects into products and make those available for sale. We talk about how to present oneself online to potential employers or how to build up ground to generate a portfolio of possible income streams.
At this point, I’d like to highlight that I don’t think students should go freelance or become entrepreneurs straight out of uni. I think it’s essential to join companies and learn from more senior people. However, I want for my students to gain a general understanding of what it means to generate revenue with their creativity and how they could do that.
In the final lecture, everyone gets to present and reflect on their creative project, share their learnings, insights, and also talk about their future plans. Again, everyone is encouraged to become more aware of how they communicate with one another and give supportive feedback. I don’t want my students to become self-proclaimed experts and entrepreneurs. I want them to become more self-aware creatives who understand their roles and their potential within the creative community.
Often, one question might be how do I reach my followers if a platform becomes less interesting to the people who follow me there? I’d say the question is only partly relevant, given that if people find value in what you create, they’ll also find a way to continue following you. If there’s value in what you share and you’ve created a sustainable platform for yourself, it’s likely that following will transfer. You might find this article Status as Service by Eugene Wei interesting.
One of the most significant things I do in all my classes is I make my students talk to one another a lot. With around 36 students, it’s not an easy task to plan enough time for everyone to be heard, so I experiment with how I structure my classes. For example, at the start of each session, I ask my students to get up and sit next to someone they’ve never talked to in the past. It’s pretty awkward during the first session because it tempts to alienate everyone. My aim, however, is to break apart existing social circles and equalize everyone. I randomly team up people for feedback sessions and teach them how to give such. I generally make them more aware of how they communicate with one another. And I also work with conversation menus to inspire them to have a different kind of conversations. The way I approach teaching has been greatly influenced by what I’ve learned from following Sherry Turkle’s research on how technology has impacted how we communicate with one another as a society.
In the ideal case, my students become more aware of the opportunities the social web is providing them with. I want them to understand how to use social media as a tool.
If they’ve managed to follow through with their project, they’ve also gained a reference for their portfolio or even have worked on something they can monetize in the future.
Most of all, I hope my classes inspire my students to understand how to use social without it overtaking their lives.
I hope my classes help them become better communicators, and ask better questions. I hope they understand how to use social media to learn from self-chosen mentors while also understanding how to make others aware of what they are really passionate about.
What I teach is probably not what anyone who’s signed up for my classes expected them to be, yet I find these insights and gaining such understanding to be much more powerful than understanding how Instagram is changing their algorithm to manipulate us into doing something that helps Instagram generate profit from our data.