2003 marked the dawn of mainstream social media, with MySpace and LinkedIn both launching the same year and Facebook hot on their heels in 2004. Since then, social media (or “social” for short) seems to have permeated every aspect of our culture and daily lives, simultaneously bringing people closer together and driving them further apart. Business has been using social media as a marketing tool ever since its inception and, although the legal sector was a late adopter, many lawyers are now regularly taking advantage of social media channels to promote themselves, find new clients, stay on top of trends and to recruit new talent. But do the benefits of staying connected outweigh the disadvantages?

Breaking Bad social habits

Social media is essentially a drug in Silicon form. The platforms have been designed with the aim of grabbing as much attention as possible from users by essentially making them addicted, using almost exactly the same methods as opioid manufacturers. One of the founders of Facebook, Sean Parker, has claimed that social media platforms essentially exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology” by creating a “social validation feedback loop”. In the same way that a heroin user becomes addicted to the chemical stimulation of their dopamine receptors, social media users get a “little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever”. It’s no coincidence that many Silicon Valley executives, who understand how the technology they are building affects the human brain, are trying to prevent their own children from becoming addicted to social networks.

This biotechnological ability of social media to sap the attention of its users presents a major concern not only for society as a whole, but also for business professionals, including lawyers. Attention spans have decreased across the board and this potentially means that we are all working less efficiently due to all the distractions from our smartphones (and those social tabs which we keep switching between in our browsers). Not only does this raise questions around productivity, but there are also significant problems related to information overload which I have discussed previously (INL July 2019). So this addiction which social media instills can directly harm the ability of its users to focus on their work and potentially degrade their performance (eg in terms of fee earning).

Trolls, faux pas and cancel culture

One of the major downsides of Web 2.0 (ie websites which enable and encourage user participation such as comments) is that it can lead to toxic arguments and online abuse. Although the most venomous trolling seems to be reserved for politicians, anyone who posts anything controversial (or even if they merely like or retweet someone else’s post) can be subject to huge levels of vilification. One prominent lawyer and campaigner temporarily quit Twitter after receiving an
avalanche of criticism in response to tweeting about his experience on Boxing Day.

Author Jon Ronson has written a book called about the phenomenon of mass humiliation on social media called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in which one of his conclusions was that the fear of being criticised or shamed is “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.” Lawyers using social media need to be very careful in terms of what they post and share, as saying the wrong thing can effectively end their careers overnight.

Désenchantée

Many lawyers initially embrace social media, wowed by the marketing opportunities of a captive audience. However, the reality rarely lives up to expectations and their enthusiasm often wanes over time. Commenting on his own experience, Michael Scutt, partner at Crane & Staples Solicitors, says:

“I think there are many reasons why I became disillusioned with social media. The tribalism and downright unpleasantness of some, albeit balanced out by the humour and wisdom of others. I also found after I stopped commuting to work I had less time for it and that coupled with joining a firm where there was plenty of work coming in meant I wasn’t so motivated to blog and tweet.

The firm I am at does use social media a lot. We use it to raise our profile as a firm rather than actively seeking work as such. It’s a sort of virtual shop front. That as well as our other IRL [in real life] marketing activities brings work in. In short I’m not convinced that social media on its own by an individual solicitor brings in much work. It’s probably different for barristers but they are usually writing for a specific audience (solicitors) if they are trying to attract work.”

The disenchantment which pervades social media is nothing new and certainly isn’t confined to the legal sector. The first widespread platform, MySpace, was touted as a democratising force in the music industry, allowing obscure musicians to become overnight megastars. But once millions of artists had their pages up and running, the majority were just lost in the noise.

Should lawyers switch off?

Like any drug addiction, quitting social media is extremely difficult. It’s not so much about the practical procedure of deleting your accounts (although instructions are often hidden away), but the abandonment of a social media network can feel incredibly daunting, as if you are severing ties with hundreds of people all at once. Furthermore, many firms now encourage – and even expect – their lawyers to maintain at least a LinkedIn presence, with website biographies often replaced by social media links. So there is external as well as internal pressure to stay connected.

But it’s worth remembering that social media is simply another tool for keeping in touch with friends, colleagues and clients, in addition to all the other methods which have existed before the internet and even the telephone was invented. Most important contacts will simply revert to email (just remember to exchange email addresses first). Another benefit of quitting social media is that it can free up resources to spend on other (and arguably more effective) marketing methods – but that is a separate topic for a follow-up article.

View from the author and editor

Before writing this article, I decided to take the plunge and delete my Twitter account (although I’ve retained my handle for posterity), and I’m now only using LinkedIn as a social media platform, having deleted Facebook several years ago. I found that using multiple social networks entailed a significant element of duplication (despite the implications of the Dolly Parton meme); I was connected to the same people on Twitter and LinkedIn, and many of the posts were identical. I’ve only received work via LinkedIn, so that was the obvious choice when I decided to streamline my social feeds. Aside from some of the political humour, I don’t miss Twitter and I may well ditch LinkedIn at some point in the future, to further reduce my exposure to information overload.

Nick Holmes, Editor of this Newsletter, takes a more pragmatic view of social media and believes it is still a valuable tool, despite the noise:

“I’ve always seen social media primarily as a vehicle for personal and professional development. I use it mainly to keep up to date and learn from others; but also to show what I know and to make new contacts.

These are all good, positive things which it’s still possible to achieve, but it now takes much more effort. The space is now much more crowded, and many in the crowd are not contributing so much as shouting ‘look at me’.

So your own voice goes almost unheard and those that do gain attention and traction are often puffed up by their own self-importance. Even intelligent, worthwhile commentators become more egotistical and can be rude and boastful. And the more you yourself get involved by commenting, the more you are likely to be abused by some random know-it-all.

You can manage it. Stop following the egotists and those you don’t like. Don’t engage with the trolls. Just block or mute them and move on. But at the end of the day, social media is an optional pursuit. Don’t stress. Take a break.”

Whether or not individual lawyers decide to quit social media, most firms will nevertheless maintain a social media presence for marketing and customer relations purposes – a matter for separate debate.

Alex Heshmaty is technology editor of the Newsletter.

Image cc by Shelley on Sketchport.

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