Techno Punks / Facebook's Ambulance Chasers

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Did you "like" the touching story about the unemployed taxi driver? What about the cat who can meow the national anthem? Did you get all your friends to sign the brilliantly written letter by the new immigrant who is already planning on leaving the country? Not yet? Well, that's impossible! My news feed has been bursting with "likes" for the story: 1,647 people have shared it, 649 like it and 255 left comments. They even started a group that already has 52 members. All over Facebook people are talking about it.

Every day, hundreds of people you know write stories. Some stay with you and some are complete throwaways. Hundreds of your Facebook friends upload thousands of amazing or hilarious photos every single day. Why do only a few receive global praise? What makes a status update or picture more likely to go viral?  Surely it's not just a matter of taste. Case in point: Have you seen the Annoying Orange YouTube clips?

Beyond the timing of a post – which is hard to control – there is one ingredient that substantially influences circulation of the item in question: How closely the person writing the status update is connected to those who are the biggest distributors of content on the social network, the folks marketers have dubbed "social media influencers."  Even if you have 1,000 friends but not a single one is connected to these wholesale distributors of content, you have slim chances of your status update going viral.

It seems that a significant number of people who write stirring and emotional status updates are in fact hoping that a wider circle of people will see their content. They want their protest to spread. They want to join some grievance or entertain a large audience. And these social media influencers enable them to do it like no other mass medium before them – not radio, not television and not even local journalism, which is targeted to a relatively niche audience.

As with traditional media, without the assistance of influencers in social media your voice is like the proverbial tree as it falls in the forest.

But even those who don’t have aspirations to share a political rant with the world or photos of last night’s debaucherous pub crawl should be aware that whoever lets his voice out in the open space of social media – even if he limits access to a relatively limited circle of friends – is at the mercy of the influencers lurking in the corner, waiting for a juicy post to appropriate. Thus whatever you write may quickly spiral out of your control if an influencer spies it and takes a liking. Suddenly, ownership is out of your hands.

At this stage of the viral outbreak, the monkey has gotten out of his cage and no one can really control the content's circulation. Hundreds of thousands of people who are connected to the distribution pipeline through expanding concentric circles of friends are exposed to the information/image and start weighing in.

Influencers are the butterfly wings that stir up a viral storm in social media. Without them our newsfeed would be quite boring – all those high school prom photos, moans from students in exams or baby photos from 30-something parents. Influencers add new colors to our Facebook walls; they infuse an element of diversity.

Nothing if not ambitious

Every influencer has several thousand Facebook friends and newsfeed subscribers. They spend their workday loitering on Facebook, weeding through the hundreds of thousands of items of content posted around the world and extracting a handful to pass onto you.  When you’re feeling generous, you can think of them as your personal content curators.

The official seal of approval, of course, is when the traditional media catches on. "A new scandal on the marketing network," "The story that shook Facebook," “The prime minister responds to a post on his profile wall!" shout the newspaper and TV channels.  At such times, the social media influencer has accomplished his mission: he noticed some content, distributed it and scored a bulls-eye.  Now he can move on.  

But the influencer, for all his power, may by little more than a content middleman, a type of 21st-century ambulance chaser.

Originally, that term was given to lawyers who loitered around hospitals or rushed to accident scenes to persuade the injured to sign over power of attorney to them to sue for damages in court. Some say the negative connotation of the term came from tony lawyers at the big firms who were afraid of competition from these ambitious independent lawyers who hustled to take a bite out of the firm’s business.

Like these lawyers, the Facebook status brokers sometimes even compete with each other over who will have first go at the heart-warming post, who will identity the hidden potential of a silly photo and who will sway thousands of Facebook friends to "like," comment, or share a post.

Similar to ambulance chasers, influencers seek commercial profit from the exclusivity or freshness factor of posts shared across the World Wide Web. They don't collect money from distributing content directly, but the more that users are exposed to their content on sites like Facebook and Twitter, the greater the chance that potential clients will be exposed to their actual business – whatever that may be.

Some of these influencers are really just in it for the fun.  They’re just social butterflies that get pleasure from fluttering around the internet.  Some, however, do have professional incentive to be visible and relevant.  If they are social media consultants (and who isn’t, these days?), freelancers in the established press or professional bloggers, then sharing status updates is essentially a means of advertising their business.

To be fair, in today’s marketplace, these people are authentic professionals in their field who understand the nuances of their workplace.  And they’re nothing if not diligent and ambitious.  Kind of like those ambulance chasers.  

The Facebook court of public opinion

Yet for all the content being shot around the web like a lightning bolt striking tens of thousands of “friends” until it flares up in traditional media, the question remains whether there’s really any lasting impact. The perfect viral status update grants the poster 24 hours of fame, but his ability to actually influence anything quickly wanes.

As a result, even content of value risks getting lost in the forceful current of information that never stops flowing.  For example, the social justice protests last year were largely cultivated online through numerous social platforms and viral postings. Yet people get bored and move on. Influencers look for the next big story or shocking/cute/hilarious/unbelievable video. 

The social justice protests have now been transformed into some kind of entertainment sideshow: another photo of a march, another report of an injustice done by the authorities, another 8,748 shares, and some 1,563 "likes." It’s all now a bit of white noise against the threat of Iran, the thrill of the Olympics, the latest celebrity scandal, or a really damn cute kitten.  

And the only people who ultimately went to the bank on the buzz generated by the protests were those social media influencers who chased the ambulance to the emergency room, took their client to the Facebook court of international public opinion, and then cashed in.

An illustrative image of an ambulance in the U.S. Credit: Bloomberg