I am not a primary school teacher. Most (if not all) of my friends and peers in real life and my connections in social media know this. I work in advertising; specifically social media marketing. This is not a real job (someone memorably pointed out that real jobs are those performed by animals in Richard Scarry books). None of this stopped me doing something odd on Friday when I posted the following to my Facebook Timeline
Why would I do something like this? Here’s the thing; I’m not the first to do this. I don’t know who was, but I shamelessly plagiarised the accompanying copy from this post by Vicky Walker.
This wasn’t the first of its kind that I’ve seen. I suspect they all got the idea from this person, who went internet famous in November 2013.
And both these examples are a subset of the wider handwritten placard Facebook meme. Stuff like this:
Scribbling the note, asking someone to take the photo of me, and uploading it to Facebook with the accompanying text probably took me less than a minute. It was a throwaway post.
A throwaway post, not some grand social experiment. A post conceived in a fit of snarkiness. In my non-Richard Scarry-compliant job, I live a good part of my life on Facebook, and I see a lot of these things. Someone has a good idea, posts it to Facebook, and it goes wildly viral. Then the imitators arrive, and some of these go wildly viral too. I considered writing a funny caption to go along with it, but decided it was funnier (and faster) to misappropriate Vicky Walker’s original text.
So what I was trying to communicate with this post was my frustration with this bandwagon-hopping opportunism; the lack of originality; even the way that people apparently exploit their jobs as teachers (Scarry-compliant) to achieve their personal ends. It was a dark thought that I was expressing, and probably not one that shows me in a good light, but that’s what I meant.
I cannot stress this enough: this was a sarcastic squib of a post, not some carefully considered experiment.
As noted previously, my social media connections know that I am not a primary school teacher. And yet, within half an hour, almost twenty of them had shared the post. I think these initial shares fell into three major groupings.
- Those who were in on the joke: who understood my intention, and who thought their friends would too.
- Those who slightly misread the post, and took it at face value to mean that I was going to teach a class of children about e-Safety (isn’t that a horrible term?) This is a pretty reasonable thing to believe. I am – after all – supposed to be some kind of an expert in social media. I have young children. I’ve even discussed how an e-Safety seminar might be put together with an old colleague (I wasn’t keen, as it happened.)
- Those who knew full well what was going on, but who for their own good reasons wanted to see what would happen.
Within an a hour, there were 100 shares. Not all of these were from my friends – their friends were getting in on the act. This is where stuff started to go wrong.
1. No context
My friend’s friends don’t all know me. Sure, we are likely to share many mutual friends, but common sense and statistics say that many more of their friends will be strangers to me.
Even if most of my friends understood the context around my post (at least, they knew I’m not a primary school teacher), their friends didn’t know that. Many of them will have been suspicious (I’m pretty clearly in an office environment, I’m pulling a ghastly grin, and the line “it’s for the kids” is a dead give away). But others weren’t, and they shared it in good faith. As more and more people shared it, the post probably acquired a “social proof” effect, which meant that people would become less likely to have reservations, and more likely to share it. By that point, the post would have lost all its context, except its social context.
2. No context (2)
My fellow social media aficionados will immediately have recognized the trope that I was (however crudely) satirising. But normal people are less exposed to memes, or don’t notice them. This may even have been the first time most of the people who saw my post were exposed to the meme. Although most of the people I talk to regularly on Facebook are heavy social media users, most of my friends are actually normal people. And their friends are normal people. So I lacked context when I considered (however briefly) how this post would be received.
3. I got carried away
When the post reached around two-hundred shares, I promoted the post so that a greater proportion of my friends would see it.
Why did I do this? To be honest, I lost my head. I’ve never had anything shared that often, and I got caught up in the craziness. I’ve promoted several of my posts in the past (it feels normal to me), so it was easy enough to do. But by doing this, as Charlie Southwell says, I have confused my motives. I’m now complicit in the way that it’s being shared.
By promoting the post, more of my friends who know me less well (type 2 friends), and who therefore would be less aware that this was a send-up not an appeal for help, would likely be exposed to the message.
Of all the mistakes I made, this is the one that surprised me the most. I became giddy at the idea of all those shares. I am – as you may have realised – fairly cynical and hard-bitten. Only a truly cynical person would poke fun at those teachers for using their role in society in an attempt to make themselves internet famous. But here I was, making a similar error.
What have I learned?
That the social media industry is kidding itself when it says that brands should provide interesting, useful, or amusing content if they want to be shared in social media. They should – instead – focus on shameless glurge. At least one successful brand knows this already.
That the social pressure/social proof effects are strong enough to propel even my depressingly awful post into some kind of internet fame.
That many of my friends, and most ‘normal people’ are nicer than I am. There’s a certain amount of “kindness of strangers” going on here – not least from those who’ve potentially been offended by the post, and yet have remained more or less polite and considered in their comments. I, meanwhile, started out by making fun of them. This is unfair. Nothing about this proves that people are foolish; rather that they consume social media in a fairly unconsidered way. It’s like believing what you read in the newspapers, or being interested in celeb news: not a sign of foolishness, but evidence that — no matter how intelligent or educated we may be — the greater part of our lives is still run by our prehistoric monkey brain.