Social Media Will Not Cure Cancer

One aspect of social media I dislike immensely is the sense of magical thinking hovers about it.  Some of the medium’s most rabid advocates possess a spooky evangelical zeal about digital communications.

At times it can feel like snake-oil salesmen who promise miraculous cures.

That’s why it’s not usual to find bold proclamations that social media has and will change everything – from sports and entertainment to world politics and human rights.  That social media will solve poverty, end world hungry and bring peace and harmony to all.  No event it seems is too large or important for social media to transform.

Now as readers of this tiny corner of the Internet know I’m a big advocate of social and digital communications.  Interactive communications and content marketing can provide enormous value and brands (and individuals) risk being left behind as social media grows, matures and changes the way be interact as a society.

But it is important to keep the industry in proper perspective.

Social media isn’t going to cure cancer.  Social media will not be rescuing kittens from tree branches.

One of the reasons why people believe social media is so magical is the prevailing myth is that everyone is doing it.  That social media has become ubiquitous in everyone’s every day life. 

This is true, but only if you define everyone as wealthy, educated and urban.

We often get blinded by what is in front of us.  When you live in New York, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Boston or Los Angles and all of your peers are carrying iPhones, downloading apps, checking in on Foursquare and posting Instagrams of their latest culinary experiences at [INSERT TRENDY RESTAURANT NAME HERE] you believe everyone else is too.

That’s just not the case.  Look no further than Twitter for confirmation of that.  Prepare yourself for this statistic social media mega-users:

93% of people in the U.S. are NOT on Twitter.

That’s quite a few people not tweeting.

When you work in a corporate environment like many people who embrace social media you forget that the majority of Americans aren’t working in high-rise office buildings in metropolitan areas.

There are many barriers to entry in being a user of social networks.  First, you need to be able to read as most of the services are text-based (hello, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter).  You also likely need to work in an industry where information gathering and sharing is an important function – which means having a college education.

Social media usage also cost money.  You need equipment for access – computers, laptops and smart phones.  And you need access to the Internet.

Here is a dose of reality on the demographics of the United States:

  • 20% of U.S. citizens are functionally illiterate and 60% read at or below the level of a fourth grader.
  • 60% of U.S. citizens have an education no higher than high school.
  • 15% of Americans live in poverty (defined as a family of four making less than $22,350 a year) and nearly 60% of all Americans live in poverty for at least a year of their lives
  • The median household income in the U.S. is $44,389
  • 31% of U.S. households have no access to the Internet – about 1 out of every three households.
  • 61% of U.S. citizens don’t own a smart phone.

As you can see, the majority of people in the United States face obstacles in becoming social media regulars.  People living in poverty are not writing reviews about their dining experiences on Yelp.  People who don’t have access to the Internet are not sharing their favorite recipes on Pinterest.

You get the point.

Social media is moving the needle, but there is still a long way to go before it will change everything and everybody.

But I’d be interested in hearing from you.  Are you a social media addict?  Does everyone you know use social networks?


“So, How Many People are Actually on Twitter?” (via Media Bistro)

Functional Illiteracy (via Wikipedia)

Educational Attainment in U.S. (via Wikipedia)

Poverty in the U.S. (via Wikipedia)

Household income in the U.S. (via Wikipedia)

7 Responses to “Social Media Will Not Cure Cancer”

  1. Fantastic piece, George. Thanks for injecting some sanity into the discussion, and for using the term “snake-oil salesman.” Too many people get too much attention for bloviating and not bringing real value. (A few come to mind…)

  2. Hi Brendan:
    Thank you, sir. Appreciate the kind words and the comment. Yes, I think we could both point fingers at quite a few snake-oil peddlers…

  3. George,
    What are you doing letting reality get in the way? While in the short term the social media cheerleaders are all sitting in the same room circle jerking each other to provide comfort and validation they need to get out into the real world to make their dreams come true.

    If they really want to get folks on board with the program they need to go out into the community and do an electronic Meals on Wheels Program.
    Can ya see it? Social Media PR firms going door to door handing out mobile phones and internet enabled tablet computers. Dress em up in Khakis and blue button down shirts with ball caps with logos like Facebook, Twitter, etc.

    Then they can all put counters on their sites:
    We have Enabled [#] New Users to Date!!!

    And to continue their income stream they can offer the latest snake oil:
    Social Performance Software!!!
    See, reality is merely inconvenient not insurmountable.

  4. Hi Flopoke:
    Thank you for my belly laugh of the day. Meals on Wheels, indeed.


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