Most of us who are involved with social media at some point find ourselves on information overload. Links from Twitter and Facebook, Google Alerts, e-mail, RSS feed readers provide so much data that it’s tempting to close ourselves off and hide for at least a week.
However, even the most introverted of us are social creatures. The reason we came online to begin with was to find other people to relate to, build our own communities. We seek validation, security even. (Arguably, the familiarity we find is what leads us to post too much information.) We seek comfort.
What happens when we’re comfortable? The information becomes easier to manage. Just as our grandparents forged brand loyalty to a newspaper or TV news network, we associate with people who filter news in a way that resonates with us, with our own life circumstances—whose outlook based on experience mirrors ours.
With awareness comes cynicism
That’s why information isn’t just information. Just as importantly, it’s also opinions about the information. If TV brought new levels of awareness to previous generations, then social media brings new layers to those awareness levels. We now know not just a message; we also know what our friends think of the message from moment to moment.
The more people close ranks into comfortable, self-contained communities, then, the harder it is to get their attention. This is where master advertisers come in. They know how to manipulate emotion, play off people’s fears to inspire action.
They’d just better know which fears to get to, though, because all those messages have made the public more cynical than ever. Witness reaction to Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m.” campaign ad: the return to Cold War-style paranoia did not win points.
We know which messages sound the same, which are designed to make us feel a certain way, especially when we don’t feel that way. We want to trust official messages less and less; for trustworthiness, we turn to each other. (This, incidentally, is how things “go viral.”)
How do communicators communicate?
This is the reason why so many organizations are jumping on Twitter and Facebook. It’s not just about finding another broadcast point; it’s about gaining access to people’s trusted networks, becoming part of their filtered information stream.
Yet communicators have a double-edged challenge: cut through the noise and cut through the comfort zone. Because not only does the sheer amount of information coming at us mean there’s no time to think critically; learning to build community to help us filter it means, in effect, we’re trusting other people to do our thinking for us.
And if we’re doing that, then your message about teen drinking and driving, domestic violence, or child pornography won’t get through. At this point, communication becomes an intricate dance:
- You must interact with the people whose stream you’re part of, provide consistently good information.
- Become trusted and trustworthy; people tune out shock value, but will tune into serious information once they trust you’re trying to help them solve problems, not just manipulating their fears. (Whether you can follow through should never even be a question.)
- Accepting that there will always be skeptics, you learn to work with the believers, trusting them to carry your message through to others.
People operate under their own worldview within their own communities, both online and off. They attach stigma to domestic violence, child pornography, drug abuse, anything “other.”
And so when it comes to educating people about crime, law enforcement might succeed in some quarters; but getting people to do anything about it is quite another matter. The “call to action” involves asking them to think about what they are willing to do. And so perhaps social media’s true promise is in making it easier to change minds and hearts.
Social change happens when people face each other with uncomfortable truths and refuse to back down, not to manipulate, but because it’s about humans looking out for other humans. When a cop who’s entrenched in a cause s/he feels deeply about, it shows. In Toronto (Ontario), Sgt. Tim Burrows is passionate about traffic safety. Now-retired Sgt. Paul Gillespie is passionate about taking down child pornographers.
Look around your agency. Who’s passionate about gang violence? Domestic violence? Mental health intervention? Identity theft? What if they were able to take those passions online, get the public’s attention, get them to filter out all the noise and start thinking about how they could help each other?
You just might start to get some problems solved in your community.
Christa M. Miller is founder and co-author of Cops 2.0, http://cops2point0.com. As a freelance trade journalist turned public relations professional, she has specialized in public safety issues for the past eight years. She resides in Greenville, SC and can be reached at email@example.com.
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