The collapse of context: Seeing through the promise of social media community building

The collapse of context: Seeing through the promise of social media community building

The concept of ‘community’ has become integral to the advertising and marketing industry in recent years. The rise of self-defined community platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has resulted in the term well and truly entering our tool kit, and it’s easy to see why. Adland and the London media world are full of young people who spend a significant amount of time on social media – much more than the average person. As a consequence, we are increasingly associating community with the virtual space, while severely underestimating its importance in the physical world.

This plays nicely into the hands of social media companies who knowing its importance, love to claim their platforms are best placed to help brands tap into a ‘sense of community’. This is a claim I’ve rarely seen challenged – after all it sounds intuitively right to our industry. The problem, is that it’s actually very wrong. If you’re looking to tap into the power of community, the likes of Facebook and Twitter are not the place to do it – because in the eyes of mainstream Britain social media is simply not a community. Let me explain.

Community experts McMillan and Chavis, defined community as ‘a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together’. This is easily applicable to the physical world, but less so for social media. Real world community depends on certainty; where there are clearly defined boundaries, relationships and established norms.

In recent years, academics have coined a new term called ‘context collapse’. One which perfectly sums up why social media will never be the community it claims to be. Simply put, context collapse is the moment when one realises that talking to everyone is the same as talking to no-one (we’ve all been there!). On social media, people from different social circles and life experiences are collapsed into one network. Consider a group you belong to on Facebook. It probably includes your friends, your auntie, your cousin, an ex-work colleague and a number of people you don’t know. Its members change constantly and comments and posts can often cause offence. You’re experiencing an environment where boundaries are blurred, and behaviour and norms are uncertain. The idea that we are part of a community of 1billion people is just too much for us to handle - the context collapses, and loses all meaning.

Using an established academic framework, the team here at Reach Solutions has recently quantified the extent to which different media provide a sense of community. As the biggest regional publisher in the country, we’ve obviously got some skin in the game, but hear me out. The Sense of Community Index (SCI) has been used in hundreds of studies within a number of contexts such as urban, suburban and internet communities. The SCI identifies four elements of a sense of community: membership, influence, meeting needs and a shared emotional connection. In a survey of 2,000 UK adults, when asked about people’s local area, the SCI gives a score of 82 out of 100. While we wouldn’t necessarily expect any media to reach this level, Newsbrands score significantly higher than any other media (54/100) – and this includes everyone from the Mirror to the Manchester Evening News to The Telegraph. Despite it often putting community and the heart of its marcoms, social media achieves a measly score of just 34. Newsbrands with long-established values and a clear and reliable point of view, reliably connect their audience with ‘people like me’. Social media has adopted the language and idioms of ‘community’. But the platform business models are resolutely indifferent and value-neutral.

This has important implications for media buying. Our data shows that the stronger you perceive media to be a community, the more confidence you have in the advertising you see on it. But this isn’t true of all media. Even among those who feel a strong sense of community with social media, only 15% say they have confidence in the advertising they see on it (net nine-ten). For Newsbrands, it’s 35% - comfortably the highest of any media. Much like TV advertising works through costly signalling, newsbrands taps into the ‘community signal’. Unlike the algorithms of social media which often result in unknown bias, people accept and expect newsbrands to have a point of view – making them real and concrete. Knowing they are partial and biased brings certainty, reliability and a sense of belonging which is so central to a sense of community.

With brands increasingly waking up to the importance of community and localisation, beware the false prophets of community… there are plenty around.

Andrew Tenzer is the director of group insight for Reach Plc

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