TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: The year that was in social media

Social media played a crucial role in many events throughout 2012. Here's our pick for the three that went the furthest to re-writing the book on the use of the medium.

Technology Spectator

The pope’s joined Twitter, the Coalition is gagging its backbenchers on social media and Facebook’s changing its privacy policy based on a user vote. That about sums up this week in the world of social media and while it may sound rather eventful, it's in fact no different to any other week in 2012.
The past 12 months have proven to be significant for social media. As a result, picking just three events in a year dominated with highlights proved to be a rather tough decision.

The call came down to finding three flashpoints that not only shaped the world, but also re-wrote the book when it comes to future social media use.

So, here’s our pick for the top three events, let us know if we got it right in the comments below.

The Kony campaign in March this year continues to stand as a permanent reminder to the power of viral videos.

Despite the campaign now fading into obscurity, it’s safe to say that the group behind the video, The Invisible Children, is still impressed with its truly groundbreaking results.

Once the video was uploaded to YouTube, it went viral on social media, attaining a staggering 40 million views within days of its release.

The video, calling the world to action against Joseph Kony and his deplorable efforts to enlist child soldiers in Uganda, won over the hearts and mind of social media users around the world.

The combined force of social media, celebrity endorsement and mainstream media coverage saw Kony’s message rocket to heights where it even overshadowed the launch of Apple’s new iPad. It even drew a pledge from President Barrack Obama that the US would work to catch Joseph Kony.

For Ovum social media researcher and IT analyst, Margaret Goldberg, Kony 2012 established social media as a "powerful channel for awareness and activism and it has redefined what a news source could be”.

"Yet, this also raised questions about fact-checking behind news and issues raised on social media,” Goldberg says.

The Kony video was later criticised by the Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi - in his own less than viral video – for highlighting the countries past, rather than its present peaceful situation.

He also had this message for the celebrities backing the Kony cause:

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For Anneliese Urquhart, the founder and CEO of social media event marketing start-up Jedo, the Kony campaign pointed out one simple truth of social media:

"When advocacy is as simple as clicking a button on a page, many of us will show our support without critically assessing what has been presented to us,” she says.

"Online advocacy is becoming increasingly popular, but many consumers have not yet realised that they need to assess this media for bias, just as they do with mainstream media.”

Interestingly, Kony also proved that social media support doesn’t necessarily equate to real-life action. The Invisible Children’s subsequent ‘CoverThe Night’ event – which asked concerned Kony viewers to paint their home-towns in anti-Kony posters – failed to gain much support.

After the release of the second, not nearly as viral Kony film, the cause seemingly vanished from social media channels. For what it’s worth, the Kony campaign still exists and as its task list shows, it’s still considered a success because it made Kony famous.

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London 2012 Olympics

London 2012 Olympic proved to be an interesting case study in social media regulation.

Coming into the event, it was clear that the organising body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had considered the potential opportunity - and threat - social media could bring to the games.

In response they drafted up their own social media policy and asked all athletes to surrender their social media account usernames on the way into the event.

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For Online Circle’s Lucio Ribeiro, the IOC’s regulations had the potential to actually harm the impact of this so-called "social olympics”.

"You can’t sustain a brand by trying to prosecute anyone who chooses to talk to you,” he says.

Despite the seemingly concrete policy, there were a significant number of social media hiccups that the IOC hadn’t planned for. For instance a lack of a contingency for cyber-bullying let a spiteful Twitter saga between one fan and British diver Tom Daley spin way out of control and into the hands of police.

Yet, overall Olympic spirit still shone through and athletes embraced this new platform with style. Many of them encouraged social media interactions and in turn this added a new dimension to the coverage of the Olympics.

"Not only were fans able to view real-time progress of their favorite athletes regardless of the time zone discrepancies and tape delays, they were able to reach out to those athletes to offer congratulations, support, and less positively, criticism,” Goldberg says.

The IOC later identified social media as the main reason behind why London 2012 was the most watched games in history. Recently, Twitter HQ seemingly vindicated this claim, labelling the Olympics as the most tweeted event in 2013.

According to social media strategist, David Warwick the success would have left the IOC with one question when it comes to planning Rio Olympics in 2016:

"What are the Olympics rights to social media worth and how does the Olympic committee monetise them?”

The US election

This year’s political tussle between Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney for the White House also forced social media into the spotlight. The saga has turned out to be a primer in how to harness social media in political campaigning.

"Before the US 2012 presidential election, it would have been easy to say that governments had yet to figure out the value of social media,” says Ovum’s Goldberg, who is based in the US.

Yet, Goldberg adds that the impending election saw both candidates refocus their efforts on social media.

"Both candidates and their respective campaigns effectively used social networks such as Twitter and YouTube to position themselves on issues, fundraise, and critique their opponent,” Goldberg says.

"President Obama even announced his win and thanked his supporters on Twitter before taking the stage to make his victory speech.”

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That tweet that Obama sent out declaring his victory went on to become the most retweeted message in the short history of Twitter. Turns out, the US election was in tight competition with Olympics for being the most tweeted about event for the year.

Even Twitter HQ itself got involved in the election, using the sentiment and amount of user tweets on its network to produce a polling score that it called the Twitter Political Index.

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According to Warwick, this kind of social media analytics may hint at the future of polling.

"Simple listening post – such as Radian6 – analysis predicted Obama's comfortable return,” he says.

"Many discounted this as the voice of the social media cohort and early adopters – turned out it was more representative and ubiquitous that polls.”

"Pundits may choose to follow social media metrics over small sample polls in future elections - another sampling industry falling away as a result of sampling everyone in real time."

Australia is bound to be one of the first countries to see the fruits of such predictions, with our own election less than a year away. And you can bet that strategies from both the Liberal and Labor camps have filled their notebooks with social media lessons from the US election.

Do you agree with our list? Are there any other events that should you think defined social media in 2012? Let us know in the comments below.