In the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the popularity of social media firms amidst mounting scandal. It has often seemed that there’s a new common sense opening up in which these firms are seen as fundamentally untrustworthy, built around a business model which means the scandals they generate are a feature rather than a bug. But how widespread is this point of view? There is low trust in social media with the Edelman Barometer finding 34% in Europe and US/Canada which is markedly lower than trust in traditional media. In Zucked, Roger McNamee reports on a corpus study looking at associations with tech firms. From loc 3298-3313:
To get a sense of the impact, I asked Erin McKean, founder of Wordnik and former editor of the Oxford Dictionary of American English, to study changes in the nouns and adjectives mostly frequently associated with each of the largest tech companies: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft, plus Twitter. Prior to the 2016 election, the tech leaders enjoyed pristine reputations, with no pejorative word associations. For Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, that is still true. For Facebook, things have changed dramatically. The word “scandal” now ranks in the top 50 nouns associated with Facebook. “Breach” and “investigation” are in the top 250 nouns. With adjectives the situation is even worse. Alone among the five tech leaders, Facebook had one pejorative adjective in its top 100 in 2015–2016: “controversial.” In 2017 and 2018, the adjective “fake” ranked in the top 10 for Facebook, followed by “Russian,” “alleged,” “critical,” “Russian-linked,” “false,” “leaked,” and “racist,” all of which ranked in the top 100 adjectives. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft do not have a single pejorative noun or adjective on their lists. Twitter has two nouns on its list that may or may not imply brand issues: “Trump” and “bots.” The study was conducted using the News on the Web (NOW) corpus at Brigham Young University. The top 10 US sources in the corpus, ranked by number of words, are Huffington Post, NPR, CNN, The Atlantic, TIME, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Slate, USA Today, and ABC News. Despite all the political fallout, Facebook continues to go about
But are they still popular? In an important sense, the evidence would suggest yes in so far as that neither user growth nor engagement rates seem to be in decline. Does this behavioural popularity co-exist with an affection for the brands themselves? I’d love to know of any research on this if readers have encountered it. But what seems clear is that continued use can co-exist with a pervasive sense that what is being used is not trustworthy. This seems like a potent psychic mix to throw into the already strange relationship which many of us have with these platforms.