Thursday, 1 August 2013

Corporate fake chumminess or why businesses on social media get me down

I have been a regular visitor to Internetland since... oh, the late 90s. I've seen a lot change over that time - from Geocities, gif-strewn websites and mailing lists, to forums, thence to Myspace, and now to Facebook and Twitter. Quite a lot of you reading this will have been on the same journey, I don't doubt.

Ahhh... memories....

Now, my main usage of the internet has been to find out information and engage with people who like similar things to me. I suppose this is quite usual (although my parents are confused by the concept of "meeting people online" - it's no different to advertising for penpals in the back of a magazine, as far as I'm concerned). Of course, I also use it for my online shop.

Increasingly, social media has become a rather over-stuffed arena. Back when I started using Facebook and Twitter, it contained people I knew from Livejournal and forums. Corporate entities weren't really on it. It was useful when local police forces started using Twitter, and it was useful when train companies were on it to tell you when there was service disruption, but other than that.....

My bugbear is the fake chumminess. I hate it. Because it's fake and because it's done so badly. If you're a big shop, a university library or a website like Ancestry, please tell me when something new has occurred - a new database is available, there's a blizzard so you're closing early... anything like that. BUT PLEASE DON'T PRETEND TO BE MY FRIEND.

The Ancestry Facebook page is the worst example of how to use social media. Or perhaps it's the best example - of how not to use social media. For those of you who haven't heard of Ancestry before, it's a genealogy website where you can put your family tree online (so it's useful as a way to store information and research but also share it), and it has a vast amount of very interesting and useful primary historical sources. They have scanned and indexed (and so rendered searchable) censuses from around the world going back to the early 1800s, parish registers, indexes to civil registration of births, marriages and deaths, electoral rolls, probate and will indexes, passenger lists, WW1 medal rolls, apprentice indentures starting from 1710, trade directories, London school admissions and discharges, petty sessions records.... loads and loads of really useful, really interesting documents that you can use to not only find out who your ancestors were, but to get an idea of what their lives were like. So when I saw that Ancestry had a Facebook page, I decided to like it so that I could get updates when new databases and resources are released. Because I'm a history geek and I'm not afraid who knows it.

But from the contents of the Ancestry Facebook page, you would never guess at the treasures to be discovered. Every day, someone updates their page with what can only be described as abject drivel. "Happy birthday, David Essex!" I read the other day. I only saw the post, not who sent it, and wondered which of my friends was excited by the blue-eyed, gypsy crooner, only to discover that it was a reputable genealogy website. Erm...? "Do you remember when the first Batman film staring Michael Keaton was released?" it asked me another day. What is this? Am I trapped inside the pub quiz from hell? "Who remembers [insert name of long-forgotten, probably disgusting confectionary item]?" Today's offering is a photo of some jeans (not even a nice vintage advert like the one I've chosen below) and a substandard joke: "Jeanealogy: the study of LEVIS and WRANGLERS." What?

Please could someone explain to me WHAT THE ACTUAL **** David Essex, Batman and some horrible sweet has to do with genealogy? With looking through parish registers written in Tudor handwriting, with trying to find out what a "stay maker" is, with dealing with ancestors who decided to change their surnames apparently on a whim, with tracing impossible people through the censuses? I'll tell you what it has to do with genealogy - sweet diddly sod-all.

It is nostalgia, pure and simple. Nostalgia for people who are older than me, and it's people who are older than me who are usually the folk who are interested in genealogy. It keeps the people who have "liked" the Ancestry page updated with stuff and they're talking about it. Someone misguidedly thinks that this is a great way to "keep people engaged" ("who likes genealogy? The over-50s! What do they like? Ian McShane!") but it's actually a massive disincentive to follow what could be an interesting and informative page. If you want nostalgia, go to the Nostalgia page on Facebook (I'm sure there's one - in fact, I'm sure there's many). Depressingly, people comment on these pointless posts in their hundreds. Yes, on a genealogy website's Facebook page, there are people discussing whether or not they like Levi's or Wranglers. Part of the problem may be how people interact with social media - when your Facebook feed has your friends, your family, your work colleagues, your school friends and then corporate pages popping up with posts left, right and centre, it all blurs into one, and I think some people start commenting on this rubbish about Batman films and David Essex without checking to see who posted it. They quite likely don't care. Something on Facebook has appeared, they can make a comment, so they do. Amongst the useless information ("I like Levis" - well, thank you for sharing that with the world. I can rest easy now!), someone* complains about the pointless drivel that Ancestry splurges all over its Facebook page, and people say "get a sense of humour", "some of us get a lot of enjoyment out of nostalgia" (you don't say...) and "you're no fun". I get plenty of fun out of genealogy - proper genealogy, not this fluffy, nostalgic claptrap.

The most frustrating thing, beyond the stupid posts, is that when they do occasionally post about new resources, I don't see them because of the way that Facebook pages work. Quite why Facebook has decided to keep all the interesting posts from me, I just don't know. Unless it secretly enjoys winding me up.....

In comparison, Find My Past's Facebook page is much better. There's a bit of nostalgia creeping into some of its posts, but their posts are mainly historical - the most recent ones have been one of the first photos ever taken of a human being (1839, in case you were wondering), an ancient Babylonian rent bill from 542BC, and a testtube reputed to hold Thomas Edison's last breath. No sign of 1970s crooners or jeans in sight. I think they've struck a good balance with keeping their Page active, posting every day, but making the things interesting and relevant.

She doesn't know why, but my mum just fainted.

I do think though that the balance is very difficult - I find it hard doing social media with my shop. I don't want to be the fake chummy person, I don't want to post every day for the sake of it. I do want to use social media so people don't forget I exist, but at the same time, I'm aware of the swamp of tweets and posts that people have to wade through each day - do I aimlessly contribute to it or do I just post when something relevant needs to be said? My work has *finally* taken to Twitter and the insistence on posting every day and coming up with your own hashtag cobblers pains me more than I can say.



  1. I like social media 'cos I have no real social life, but I'm very careful which corporate entities I Like/Follow. Too many non-news tweets (or too many on the same subject) and I'll dump them.

  2. I don't use facebook or any of these things myself but if I did it would annoy the hell out of me too!