Has social media simply become too toxic for ALL corporations or is it just Wetherspoons?

As Wetherspoons announces it is pulling all its social media accounts with immediate effect, guest blogger Simon Poulter of Where Are We Now? wonders whether companies still need social media. Or it just the fact that the pub chain wasn’t really very good at it that accounts for the latest move!

There is, already, an irony to the post you’re about to read, in that it will be promoted on the very social media services it concerns. But that’s purely because, like most people who use social media, I can’t help but want attention. Which, let’s face it, is mainly how social media came about to begin with.

It is also behind the news yesterday that pub chain JD Wetherspoon is departing social media for good. Now, given the state of the world – not least of which, a third world war in the offing… – this is “probably” not big news. But, partly as a result of social media, news that Wetherspoon’s is calling “timegennelmenpurleaze!” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is…er…indeed news.

Waste of time?

According to the chain’s not-particularly publicity-shy chairman, Tim Martin, social media is a waste of time and even a drain on his pub managers’ time. Well, that’s one possible reason.

Two others are that 1) Wetherspoon’s doesn’t exactly have a massive following on any of its social accounts and 2) the chain has been mercilessly trolled for taking a pro-Brexit stance (in November last year it had 500,000 beer mats distributed throughout its 895 pubs in the UK with a three-point “Brexit Manifesto” calling on the leaders of the main political parties to get a move on with leaving the EU).

There’s also a third suggestion that it’s all just a publicity stunt – which, given the fact I’m blogging about it, would mean ‘mission accomplished’.

Either way, Martin has raised a valid question about the role of social media in the commercial world. “We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business,” he told the BBC, saying that society would be better off if people cut the amount of social media use, adding a clear dig at Facebook with a reference to the “misuse of personal data”.

Somewhat less convincingly, Martin chose to bring up time consumption amongst employees as another reason to leave social platforms behind, saying that “90-to-95%” of his pubs’ managers “felt using social media was not helping the business” due to the “addictive nature of social media.” And he added: “We were also concerned that pub managers were being side-tracked from the real job of serving customers. I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever.”

While I’m sure some Wetherspoons customers might have reason to complain about inattentive bar staff, I very much doubt that they are too busy tweeting out special Friday night offers on jugs of sangria (for reasons of transparency, my local in Paris – The Bowler – once tweeted me personally because I hadn’t been in for a few weeks. Now that is customer engagement!).

Wetherspoons has pulled all of its social media accounts but you will still be able to order food and drink at your table using the app

Free promotion

Time will tell, though, whether Wetherspoons flounce from social media will have any impact. Conventional wisdom does dictate that a digital presence is essential in the modern world, whether to drive sales, corporate reputation, customer loyalty or all three. Most marketeers believe that Facebook, Twitter and its ilk are simply free advertising platforms which can be augmented by so-called “paid promotion” (essentially, the nub of these networks’ business models). The issue, however, is that whether you’re an advertiser or simply someone desperate to see friends’ cat videos, social media is still, by and large, whatever you want to make of it.

As I wrote, some many posts back, Twitter can be a little like the river of demonic ooze running beneath New York in Ghostbusters, if you dare to be sucked into the reactionary trollery and right wing nutjobs lurking barely below the surface. But it can also be a tremendous expression of democracy, or a wonderful outlet for distributing questionable humour, or the most efficient news feed this side of buying a Reuters subscription.

As for Facebook… Well, the almost-original social network (Friends Reunited, anyone?) clearly has its faults. I won’t dwell on the Cambridge Analytica debacle, but there is something intrinsically creepy about suddenly seeing promoted posts for travel companies like Thomas Cook and First Choice on my timeline barely a day after I was looking at summer holidays on my iPad with these very companies.

As innocent as it might look, the data harvesting practices of social media networks and their clients concerns me more than anything. They are sitting on a vast amount of information about me, my interests and buying habits which, surely, should be mine to know and for commercial organisations to find out when I choose to buy something from them, and not before.

Mentally and physically better off

But back to Tim Martin, who rounded out his decision to take Wetherspoons offline by declaring that people would be “mentally and physically better off” if they limited their social media use to just half an hour a day.

Here he may have a point. We certainly know that social media has only added to the complications of modern teenage life, especially amongst girls who, on top of all they’ve always had to go through, now have to put up with social exclusion, fat shaming and even sexual abuse via the various ‘must have’ social media platforms they sign up to.

Adults are not immune, either, with some living vicariously through Facebook and Instagram, while others suffering inadequacy at pictures of their perfect friends living it up.

The question is, could you do without social media? Would your life feel more complete, rather than less, without it? Those older than the Millennial generation will, of course, have enjoyed life pre-digital. We talked to each other, face-to-face or by phone. If we wanted to show off where we’d been on holiday we handed round a packet of prints from Boots while suburban bores invited friends round for a slide show with fondue.

Now, we can share the beach vista as we’re sitting in it; we Facebook the meal we’re about to eat (though, thankfully, not the final third of the digestion process…); and children will live their entire lives, from the moment they burst out of the womb, in Instagram pictures and stories.

And we will lap it all up, so to speak. Because, thanks to the smartphone, we have social media at our fingertips constantly. Just look at a train station at rush hour – banks of stooping commuters, thumbing through their timelines.

The Albert and The Lion pub in Blackpool

Making social media safe

And it is exactly this point why, I suspect, JD Wetherspoon will be in a very small minority. In the early days of ‘websites’, digital interaction was via the PC. Now, it’s constant via mobile devices – even smart watches. We fill every unaccounted-for eyeball time with social media sites, on trains and buses, as we walk and as we fly. For some, it’s their entire world. For others, it’s their only means of self expression. And for others, it’s simply a way of avoiding talking to others.

The Wetherspoon chairman’s assurance that his company would “still be as vocal as ever” might hark back to the pre-digital age when other media platforms gave companies a voice to the outside world, but the reality – the unbearable truth, if you like – is that in 2018, social media is part of the daily fabric.

Rather than leaving such services, corporations should be doing more to make social media a safer place to inhabit. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal and recent stories about the role social media plays in London’s epidemic of drug/gang violence should serve as a warning to the vast majority of corporate concerns who do still believe in social media.

If there really is a reason for corporates unplugging from social networks, it’s that for all the good these platforms do in connecting friends or allowing those without a voice to have one, there is a dark side not worth associating with. That’s the minority who take it too far. Yes, you Mr. President.

You can read the full article here

Below a few sample tweets from the recent baked potato-gate on Wetherspoons Twitter feed

Contrary to the rumours, Wetherspoon later clarified their jacket potatoes are “always baked – never fried”.

Chris Price