The Social (Media) Dilemma for Conscious Businesses

Reflections on a choice between two evils: Compromising on core company values or risking certain irrelevance?

Part of launching a new company is creating attention around it. To make sure that the news about the mission, the value proposition, and services make their way to the right people: potential partners, potential clients, and potential community members; people that might become ambassadors for the cause and champion the values and goals within their own organisations.

But getting people’s attention in the year 2020 is not an easy task. Look at how the quality of news media headlines have disintegrated in favour of vague, sensationalist ones that prey on our desire to gossip: “Minister Lied; Might Quit”, “Do These 3 Things Now and Thank Me Later”, “You Never Know How This Moose Survived”. It is a strategy of aggressively pulling people towards their content above everything else.

Then there is the opposite case of notifications, relentlessly pushing information in our faces even though we might not have asked for it or want it at that particular time. Add to that infinite scroll patterns, application sound design, animations, bright saturated colours; the arsenal in the struggle over our attention is ever-growing.

Surveillance capitalism, the attention extraction economy, Big Data; it is all pseudonyms for the same phenomena: that we are being monetised and manipulated with as we use digital media because of how dominant the advertisement business model has become on the Internet.

Centre for Humane Technology, the non-profit working to educate and raise awareness about the harmful consequences of the attention economy (recently appearing in “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix) puts it this way on their home page:

"Just like a tree is worth more as lumber and a whale is worth more dead than alive—in the attention extraction economy a human is worth more when we are depressed, outraged, polarised, and addicted."

No business with just a hint of integrity or ethical compass should want to support this. But so many responsible organisations, B Corps and social entrepreneurs still choose to do so, regularly posting their work and life on social media. At Derail, we did the same: three fresh accounts opened on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn; with content pipelines in the making and research about best times to post updates conducted.

How is this defensible and anything but hypocritical?

A True Dilemma

I believe conscious entrepreneurs, startups and businesses are stuck in a true dilemma: either they open, run and nurture social media accounts and leverage modern and frankly effective ways of getting leads, customer acquisition and traction on their products, knowing that they support a system that is damaging to human psyche and society; or deliberately opt out of the attention economy only to decrease their chances of reaching a critical mass of people for their service, products or idea to have an impact.

Compromise on your values or risk utter irrelevance; a choice between two equally hurtful evils for a young business. What do you do? What should you do?

For now, we have opted to go with social media as the lesser, necessary evil. And I think this is the conclusion a lot of similarly minded companies reach as well: A young business is driven by the belief that what you have set out to do will create meaningful value and impact for people, society and maybe even the biosphere if it succeeds. If you take on the unnecessary risk of failure, you might as well not have set out in the first place.

Deliberately choosing to support a broken system is the path many of us take. But in doing so, companies should not take on a defeatist mindset and gradually turn a blind eye to the consequences of the choice. When good people make hard decisions that affect and harm others, they do three things: they let people know, they tell them why they had to make that decision and they explain their considerations of alternative options and ways they could mitigate the consequences of their action.

Conscious businesses should do the same when they opt to support the attention economy over risking irrelevance:

  1. Awareness: Let people know what you did
  2. Purpose: Explain the purpose of and intent with the decision
  3. Reflections: Present the considerations that went into the decision and plans for how you could mitigate the negative consequences of that action.

For companies, the affected stakeholders are all their current and potential customers, partners and collaborators.

What We Have Done

So to wrap up, here’s our response to the simple framework we outlined above:

  • We created, and intent to maintain social media channels on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, knowing that this supports the flawed attention economy that we do not support
  • The purpose of creating and maintaining social media channels is to guide more potential customers, partners and curious professionals towards our own website, where we control how their privacy is treated. It is also to grow our offline community and network.
  • As we outlined in this post, as a young, conscious company we will do everything we can to become relevant and achieve a critical mass of customers because we believe the impact we could have will be a net benefit to society and the biosphere. We acknowledge that the decision is a compromise on our values and will phase out active maintenance of our social media channels once we do not see them as business-critical any longer. Additionally, we commit ourselves to support both organisations working towards eliminating the attention economy and businesses that attempt to deliver a similar value proposition as these social media through a business model that works in favour of people.

Let us know what you think is the right approach, and how we might improve ours.

— Morten

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