Keeping social

Children born today will never know the struggle of hearing that classic dial tone and waiting 10 minutes to (finally) connect to the Internet. Today, it’s readily available and virtually on every computer, screen, tablet and phone around the world.

In a world where the influence of the Internet is constant, an online community is forming. Social media and its impact on the next generation may be a growing concern for many, but it has also shown it can build businesses, friendships, talents and love.

Reality TV star and entrepreneur Ricky Forbes (BComm’10) became a social media influencer “before we even knew what that was.”

He owes it all to storm chasing, a career he kind of fell into.

Pursuing his taste for travel and adventure, he wound up crossing paths with storm chaser Greg Johnson. Johnson was building a name intercepting and documenting extreme weather events—prairie lightning storms, tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards.

In the spring of 2012, Forbes saw his first tornado.

“I was hooked. It’s still my favourite thing to do,” said Forbes.

But Forbes and the team were barely breaking even selling video footage. So they hopped on social media to market themselves as storm chasers and public speakers.

Forbes and Lowe

“You build a big enough audience, you get enough eyeballs on you, it just helps increase your value,” Forbes said.

They chose Twitter, then Facebook and finally Instagram as the best medium to connect with potential fans.

“For what we were after with our imagery, we needed virality. We needed something that would move fast and Twitter offers retweets, Facebook allows you to share it,” he explained.

The team’s big TV break came shortly after May 31, 2013 in Oklahoma. The El Reno tornado is the largest tornado in recorded history—over four kilometres wide—and Johnson, Forbes and their teammate Chris Chittick were right on the edge of it. The whole world got to see and experience what they did, from the comfort of their digital devices.

Soon after, they got a phone call from TV producers in Toronto wanting to make a show about storm chasing. They “loved our content, they loved our social media channels, and of course our following helped leverage that deal as well,” Forbes said.

More work came Forbes’ way. A guest appearance on the CMT show Ice Racer Showdown, racing rally cars on ice in Alberta, hosting the online show Canada’s Greatest Explorer, and MuchMusic’s Far & Wide.

Returning to Saskatoon after his projects wrapped up, Forbes reconnected with his school pal and fellow adventurer Travis Low (BComm’10). While Forbes’ forte was social media and reality TV, Low had spent four years as executive director of Parkinson Society Saskatchewan. Low has also used social media to promote his fundraiser Lows in Motion, now entering its 10thyear. Low’s father has Parkinson’s, and running this event was a way for Low to give back. It’s Canada’s most attended Parkinson fundraiser, and has brought in more than $550,000 so far.

Paddleboarding on the river one day, Forbes and Low brainstormed business ideas.

The result was a digital marketing company, Blue Moose Media, launched in November 2016. Its mainstay is two-fold. One is account management for clients, handling all aspects of social media marketing for them. The other is training other businesses in social media marketing tools and strategies so they can be successful online.

“Social media is by far the most cost-effective and measurable advertising tool out there,” Forbes said, adding this proviso: it takes time to make it work.

Asked to name the most important things about effective use, Forbes mentions three: posting great content that is engaging, having a clear and well thought out content strategy, and something he calls community management.

“No other advertising medium allows two-way conversation with consumers,” he explained. Imagine drawing in 50 or 100 comments on your site: now you have a community, “you become weaved into their lives.”

But it’s important to answer those comments, reviews and messages. As is offering “a great brand story” that includes not only your product or service, but other content pillars that add value—things your company is doing in the community, the people who work for you and expertise in your industry. A company that sells barbecues, for example, might post the top five recipes.

“You’re not trying to sell me anything, you’re just being a friend,” Forbes explained.

Forbes’ advice to anyone launching a career or business: emulate the successful social media marketers. Look at how often they post, what they post about, which posts get the most engagement and why. (Is it the way it’s worded? Is the person’s photo a close-up or shot from 20 feet away?)

Direct connection, musician to audience

Aspiring entertainers would do well to emulate Nathan Thoen’s (BComm’15) social media path.

Lead singer in the Saskatoon band Bombargo, Thoen remembers the “surreal moment” when the group returned from a January song-writing trip to Bali. Their song Mr. No Good made Taylor Swift’s list of favourites she posted on Spotify, the online music service.

“Some of the biggest artists in the world are on this list and then Bombargo’s on it. And we were like ‘what the heck?’” said Thoen.

Yep, there they were, 37th on a list of 43 that includes the likes of Ed Sheeren, Kendrick Lamar, Camila Cabello and the Canadian pop punk band Marianas Trench.

Thoen is unsure how Bombargo made the list, but he thinks it’s probably because of the song’s spike in popularity on Spotify—with uploads in such far flung places as Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.

Mr. No Good by Bombargo

The attention has generated phone calls and emails from people in the music industry, and now Bombargo is trying to capitalize on the attention, creating new videos and recording the music they wrote in Bali.

Not bad for a song written in 15 minutes and recorded the following day. The day after that, they shot the music video at the club Village Guitar & Amp, just down the street from Thoen’s Riversdale-area home. One day later Thoen did the editing and released the song on Spotify and YouTube. In all, a four-day turnaround, “which is kind of unheard of to be able to move that quickly,” Thoen said.

Before the digital revolution, a band couldn’t hope to get radio airplay without first signing with a record label, which put out a recording and covered the huge cost of churning out a music video. Then the band had to hope a producer liked the video enough to play it. Otherwise, it would land on a pile of old dusty tapes.

“Now, your iPhone can shoot an amazing music video,” Thoen noted, and outlets such as Spotify “can get you out there faster than the radio can.”

As such, this digital revolution is forcing musicians to be their own marketers. With CD sales taking a dive, record labels are no longer willing to take risks on promising but unproven performers, Thoen observed.

The shift from labels to social platforms may limit record producers nurturing band talent and taking them to the next level. But with no producers around to squelch that talent in the name of massive popularity and sales, musicians can follow their own creative path, finding a niche audience in the virtual world—if they can be heard above the explosion of competition out there.

How does Thoen cut through that competition? By playing live as much as possible, and making the show as lively as possible—“climbing the railings at the bar”—whatever it takes to make the audience come back for the next show, just because they want to see what happens next.

Single no more

Social media can definitely help you sell products or a piece of music but when it comes to matters of the heart, people of all ages are also benefiting from online communities said Sarah Knudson, associate professor and department head of sociology at St. Thomas More College.

But the usage patterns in younger and older generations are not necessarily what we might expect, she found.

Citing surveys by the Pew Research Center in the U.S., Knudson says 30 to 40 per cent of adults are looking for love online.

People in their mid-20s and younger feel no stigma with Internet dating but they generally don’t approach it with “serious intent,” Knudson said. They may post their profile on apps like Tinder or Grinder, but for them it’s a way to pass some “mindless time,“ checking to see who else is out there looking. They believe they’re most likely to find a long-term partner in-person in class, at work, out on the town.

But once people reach their late-20s the romance market begins to thin, Knudson explained.

And so for people this age and older, the Internet becomes the method of choice to find a serious partner and they approach it with a greater sense of mission. Sometimes.

It’s actually a complicated scene, according to Knudson, bringing mixed results.

Online dating leads to marriage only about five per cent of the time, she said, although there may be a hidden number of good long-term relationships such as couples who move in together.

That compares with a success rate of 30 to 90 per cent claimed by professional matchmakers, although to Knudson’s knowledge no one has tried to verify those figures. And she is unaware of any client surveys looking at such things as how long it took to find someone, and how many people they met in the process.

But getting your heart broken transcends beyond the limits of finding someone at the bar versus online; there’s still a world of disappointment for online daters. People— including married folks—looking for casual hook-ups. People who misrepresent themselves, perhaps posting a younger photo of themselves. Discrimination on the basis of age or ethnicity. And there are safety concerns.

On the one hand, an online search can be a time-saver in an age when everyone is so busy. But it can feel like a time-sucker, wading through hundreds or even thousands of profiles.

And yet, for older people Internet dating still “expands the universe of possibilities,” Knudson said, especially in small towns and rural areas. Another positive: niche sites have sprung up, serving such diverse groups as people with disabilities, particular faith communities, or certain age groups.

“It’s a way of realizing that there might be other singles seriously hunting singles out there not too far from them whereas 30, 40 years ago you’d just say, ‘There’s nobody around, there are no prospects.’”

From dating to data mining

Computer science professor Julita Vassileva has spent the past couple of decades peering at the Internet from all angles: working on systems and infrastructures, studying the ethics of digital technology, and encouraging participation in online communities.

As she sees it, virtual connectedness has broadened community but perhaps also made it shallower.

Everything on the Internet happens at lightning speed and Vassileva has witnessed how the interaction between users and their platforms continues to evolve. Vassileva has seen some infrastructures appear then fade away (such as online discussion forums)— to be replaced by such dominant players as Facebook.

“Defining what kind of functions the site has, what people are able to do with it, to a big extent defines whether people will storm to use it, or they will just hang on and start checking it less and less frequently and then finally fade off,” she explained.

She agrees that how people use Facebook is as individual as the people themselves. She uses her account to share interesting articles on the future of technology with her colleagues near and far, and to keep in touch with friends in her native Bulgaria. After 20 years of living in Saskatoon, when she goes home to visit, “I don’t feel like a stranger. I jump right in to the middle of the action. I’m current to my friends’ lives.”

And yet, what some Facebook users may not know is that each of our friends may be seeing quite a different portrait of us through the social media platform.


It’s both the upside and the downside of the site’s capacity to personalize content, Vassileva explained. Facebook filters away the things each user finds uninteresting. Your one friend’s continual posting of cat videos might not be even in your news feed because you have never liked any of them. Facebook’s algorithms learn from your behaviour and reorders the stream of events on your feed.

“If you didn’t engage with her posts for some time you stop seeing them,” Vassileva explained. “That’s what Facebook does.”

So, if you and someone else have the same friend, “you and this other person will see completely different things in their stream, because it’s based on what you like, on what you read, what you forward.”

It saves you time, but also takes away your ability to do your own filtering.

Nearly eight years ago, one of Vassileva’s students designed an application that allowed users to see their Facebook streams unfiltered. “And people were amazed to see how much they don’t see in their normal stream because it’s hidden away from (them on) Facebook,” she recalled.

It’s how Facebook can lead to radicalization, Vassileva explained.

“If you hear only confirmation of your views, you’re confident that your views are correct. You believe the whole world agrees with you, but it’s not the case.”

Lately there have been reports of the link between social media and depression. Vassileva believes an unrealistic impression that other people’s lives are so much better than one’s own is only part of the explanation.

“(Social media) is still a surrogate, it’s not a real interaction. A real interaction has a lot of unselected noise, and this noise is healthy,” she explained.

Much has been made of Internet “trolls,” the people who make hateful comments under the cover of anonymity. But Vassileva sees another side to anonymity: the ability to express minority views without fear of backlash or reprisal. Some governments aim to outlaw anonymity because they want to stifle dissent, she notes.

Similarly, the participative web’s persuasiveness and addictiveness can be used for ill or for good. On the positive side, the reward features of games (such as progress bars or levels) can be used to encourage healthier habits. So can competitive features such as leader boards.

Where Vassileva sees enormous danger is in data collection (so necessary for personalizing social media streams), shifting the balance of power hugely in the favour of the companies that amass it.

Now, Vassileva and one of her students are developing a platform where users can decide with whom they want to share their data. Using blockchain technology, they can say what data will be stored, who can access it, for what purpose, and how long it can be kept. Users can then make money from their own data, charging for the use of it, with payment in cryptocurrency.

The project is expected to be completed in two years’ time. The challenge then is in persuading digital powerhouses such as Google and Facebook to adopt the platform. Perhaps it can be promoted as a good business practice, taken on by corporations that want to be seen as ethical, Vassileva says.

Although examples abound of digital technologies being put to malevolent uses, “they have always been developed with good intentions, to improve things,” she stressed.

It will be an ongoing effort to counteract corrupt uses, Vassileva acknowledges, all the more difficult in a world where the speed of innovation is “neck-breaking.”
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