WARNING: this blog post might make you think deeply about things and click fun links (but don't get too distracted by the fun links - I'd also like you to get all the way through this post)
In the dynamic world of social media and digital technology where verified Twitter accounts and the number of followers serve as the measure for status and credibility, "likes" represent a form of social currency, and Alex from Target can become an Internet sensation in less than 12 hours, what does it take to get people to engage? Anyone can generate content, but what is it that makes content shareable enough for the average person to get others on board? In the digital world, does content matter less? Will people share anything?
In a course I took this fall, "Keywords in Digital Technology and Culture," we spent the semester studying words and characteristics related to digital technology that inspired these questions. We hear the words "share" and "viral" all the time online. Whether it be BuzzFeed's "24 Struggles Only People Who Are Constantly Hangry Understand" on Facebook, the adorable, heart-melting picture of that Bernese Mountain Dog on Pinterest, or your fab selfie of your new haircut on Instagram (guilty of sharing all of these), content is shared and circulated around the globe daily, across all platforms.
Most of the time, we click the "share," "retweet," or "pin" buttons without a second thought. I personally have even gone through phases of what I would coin "compulsive sharing" in which I would share posts that seemed just somewhat relevant to my life (like this one). But have you ever stopped to think Why did I just share that? or What am I conveying about myself through sharing this post? or What does it even mean "to share" nowadays? Probably not, because we don't consciously criticize every aspect of our social media identities or always think about the things we do online as being expressive of ourselves.
In the Keywords course I took, one reading assignment in particular discussed the implications of what "sharing" truly means in this era of Web 2.0. Sharing used to only mean distributing and dividing things up for co-ownership. It was only within about the last 100 years that the word "share" adopted the meaning "to talk openly and honestly about something" and "to communicate deep, personal truths with others." It is this definition of the word that has been translated to digital usage and the type of "share" we think of now with regard to social media. It is almost impossible to engage in the digital sphere without encountering content that has been "shared" or that prompts you to "share" it. We share news articles, others' posts, statuses about our own lives, pictures, and links to just about everything. Why has sharing become so dominant in this digital culture?
In reality, everything we do online, everything we share on social platforms, is communicating some message about our identity.
Let's take a step back to my questions about generating content and getting people to engage with it, or share it. To dive deeper into these questions and do some first-hand research on the subject, I decided to do a short social experiment here on campus. Anyone can create something shareable, right? (Wrong.) Even basic things and concepts can go viral in this time of "compulsive sharing," right? (Wrong.) Here's what I did, and here's what happened. (And, eventually, why it matters.)
For my experiment, I decided to create a simple note sharing campaign here at IU. Well, the concept was simple at least.
The topic of my note sharing campaign was "share happiness." To start the campaign, my friend Kait and I wrote tons of notes, each consisting of happy little phrases.
Here's where the experiment gets tricky. To tie it into the digital world, I wanted to get people to not just see the notes, but to engage with them, whether it be writing and posting their own notes around campus or just taking a picture of the notes they find and sharing it on the Instagram account I created for the campaign.
Each note had instructions on the back about how to get involved and how to interact with the Instagram account: @behappyIU.
Here's what happened with my campaign. I'll start by saying, it went far from viral.
I created the Instagram account on Nov. 15. Within a few hours, I had 16 followers. Like any strategic marketer, I decided to follow people from the @behappyIU account to try to encourage more followers of the account itself. By day 3, I hadn't put the notes around campus yet, and I had 21 followers. I wanted to amass some sort of following before putting any physical notes around campus.
I put notes around campus throughout the first week of the campaign commencement. I stuck them anywhere and everywhere: the IMU, Wells, Teter, Kelley, the Ed School, bathrooms, walls, doors.
Then I started posting on the account, trying (hoping) to gain some digital traction.
I tried to inspire people to do their own notes by showing some fun examples of my notes.
I tried to use my cute, cone-ridden pup to gain likes and engagement with the campaign.
Of all the notes I put on campus and posts I shared on the account, I am pleased (sort of) to announce that I received ONE organic engagement with the campaign. And it was awesome.
This girl saw a note I posted on campus, followed the instructions on the note, took a picture of it, and shared it on her own Instagram account tagging @behappyIU. I then shared it on the campaign account.
Here's where we're at today: day 16, 64 followers, 14 posts.
So, I tried to start a note sharing campaign to better understand concepts such as "sharing" and "viral" and their implications in today's digital world. Why does it matter?
For starters, this is the communicable world we live in. We're getting content thrown at us left and right. Sometimes it's relevant, sometimes it's just noise. No matter what it is, once it's out there, it's out of your control to a certain extent. Sometimes many people will see it. Sometimes only a few. You can try (like I did) to herd in followers and spread the word. But, as I found out, it's not going to work if you just put anything out there. It needs to matter. The content has to be relevant, or no one will want to share it, and your attempt will just be seen as part of the noise.
When you scroll through your Facebook newsfeed or Reddit, it might seem like a bunch of random, meaningless content. You might think that in this day and age, anything can become popular online. In reality, with so much out there, content is more important than ever. People want to engage with material that makes sense to them personally and the personas they want to put forth. If you want your voice to be heard, if you want to start something big, make it interesting. Make it relatable. And don't overthink it.
I tried to start a campaign. It didn't take off. BUT...I was able to tie my course concepts into real life, learned a little something about myself, had fun doing it, and was at least able to get one person on board (thanks @lindseygwen).