social media renaissance

The social media renaissance: learning to play nice online

Why the social media renaissance rewards brands that play nice on social media

The great social media renaissance is underway, says Nadja Bellan-White, Vice Media Group’s Global CMO. The defining feature of this revolution is a change in the role of social media, brought about by the global pandemic. For a whole year, social media was the only way people could connect with their loved ones. As a result, it took on a far more central role in their lives. The line between online and offline interactions is blurring, driving a whole new approach to how we use social media.

Social media has an impact in real life

Until recently, very little that happened online spilled over into the real world in a meaningful way. If you didn’t have a Twitter account, you probably never heard about what happened on the platform. Today, social media has a huge presence in the offline world; for 4 years, American policy was dictated directly from the president’s Twitter account.

Like social media itself, this change has both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, the powerful impact of Black Lives Matter has had tangible results across the world, and the sight of English Premier League footballers taking a knee before every match is distributed across the world to a viewership of billions. On the other hand, though, harmful conspiracy groups are using Facebook and Instagram to organise and circulate their messages. Online activities are affecting the real world, but at the same time they’re becoming more similar to the way people interact face-to-face.

Real-world rules apply on social media

Online and offline interactions are very different, in large part due to the lack of a social contract. People feel free to say things online that they would never dare if they were face-to-face. What’s known as the online disinhibition effect works partly because people feel that the interaction isn’t ‘real’ in some way, so it doesn’t matter if you cause offence. But because social media has had to stand in for face-to-face interaction for so long, people are finding it harder to brush off social media interaction as ‘not real’.

The importance of playing nice on social media

Because people want social media to feel like a ‘real conversation’, they’re starting to import some of the rules we use in face-to-face interactions. For instance, the value of being nice is increasing as people value a positive experience more highly. Consequently, the value of nasty content is starting to slide. Take a look at this tweet from author Jeanette Winterson:



This is the kind of thing that you might expect Twitter to eat up (and Jeanette presumably did), but the reaction online has been largely negative. People are unhappy to see someone being so demonstratively negative and hostile. Jeanette could count this as a win anyway, and the whole point of the exercise could be to drum up publicity. However, the content is still fairly mild, and the strongly disapproving reaction from social media users is notable.

Build a circle to define your brand

As with real life, people tend to be drawn to those they share values with. We’ve explored the power of marketing to social networks before, but Bellan-White talks about how this is increasingly mirroring the real world. People look for interactions that feel ‘real’, and a hallmark of real-world communities is that they tend to share a set of values and opinions. When plugged into the digital realm this has the potential to create self-reinforcing ‘echo chambers’, but brands can and should seek to define what they stand for. Caution is important to avoid alienating potential customers, but by showing what they value, brands can generate an identity.



This is a good example from Vice’s Twitter. It’s a clear stance on the issue of free speech in China, and Vice’s readership will probably agree. As a result, people discussing this issue will probably read and share the Vice article with each other. As Vice continues to put out content that this group interacts with, it becomes another link that binds the group together, an implicit facet of how it defines itself. This is a powerful position for any brand to occupy.

The new rules of social engagement

The real world and the digital one are converging. The rules for real-life interactions are becoming more valuable online, and brands need to adapt.

  • Underpinning everything else is the belief that brands actually mean what they say. This is an uphill battle, since brands’ personas are by definition artificial. Consistency is key.
  • Deeds, not words. Bellan-White talks about brands with ‘purpose’, and how the best way to demonstrate this is by taking real-world actions. Brands that show up in the real world enhance their online authenticity.
  • Play nice. The era of the viral put-down is coming to an end. Although there are still plenty of trolls around, people want to have positive interactions online as well as face-to-face, so be nice!
  • Choose your circle. Just like in the real world, the company you keep online is important. Brands should take steps to define the circle they fit in.


In a changing landscape, brands have to be agile and fast to adapt. If you’d like to explore how Ambitious PR can help you navigate this new world, drop us a line today and we’ll be happy to find time for a chat.