The paradox of social media

Deborah Choo

In an era of social media, “You know how you’re always told ‘you are not what you read’. Today, you read what you are,” said Alan Soon, Managing Editor and Head of Audience at Yahoo! Southeast Asia.

Addressing the paradox of social media, he claimed that despite the fact that social media exposes everyone to the mass of information out there, readers tend to narrow only selected news feeds depending on individual’s interests.

“So this is one of the interesting things about social media is that you’ll always find an audience of basically like yourself; you’ll find people of the same opinion, if you look for it, and you’ll spend time reading people’s opinions if they’re more and mighty voice," said Soon.

Soon and Henry Mason, Head of Research & Analysis at, were speaking at the launch of Social Media week this morning at Singapore Management University’s (SMU) School of Accountancy.

Highlighting a worrying trend, he said, “You open the paper and you know what, you’re more likely to read stuff that you’re not likely to click online. But because it’s on a paper, it’s on a broad sheet, it only takes two minutes to scan it to read the headline and the lead paragraph so you have an idea of what it is right? You were more exposed to information and knowledge much more than you are now.”

“So one of the problems that we face in online journalism now is that the serendipity factor is always missing. We only got the sites that we like. We get most of our news form Facebook or Twitter or any one of these social media from people that you like. It becomes unfortunately a very closed way of looking at the world.”

He warned that this will pose one of the news industry’s biggest challenges ahead. “We’re all slaves to discovering news we like,” said Soon. “We have to try to show as many opinions as possible and as quickly, accessible and discoverable.”

Mason, on the other hand, weighed in on the business aspect. “Social media isn’t a marketing media; it’s a genuine communication media.” That said, he clarified that social media “is about the people, not brands”.

But he claimed that firms do not need a social marketing strategy as word of mouth marketing remains the most powerful and effective tool.

Mason cautioned businesses that base their audience solely on social media followers as the business “lives and dies with social media”. Citing Apple as one of the world’s biggest firms, he said that because their product is “relevant” to people, despite the fact that they do not have a Twitter account, the company’s sales remains booming.

Throwing a curveball question, a member in the audience asked both speakers: What can firms that do not have an “amazing product” do in terms of marketing using social media?

“That is it,” he candidly replied, before adding, “That is creative destruction; it’s like someone surviving on steroids because it’s no longer possible to hide behind curtains these days.”

But social media has not only affected the way firms create their marketing strategy, and consumers’ behaviour. It has also changed the role of how the news media operates, said Soon.

News is no longer a “product” with a one-size-fits-all mentality, but a “process” where it is collaboration with readers.

Doing an impromptu experiment with the audience, Soon asked how many found out of pop icon Whitney Houston’s death via Twitter. A substantial number of the audience raised their hands.

“That’s how powerful it is,” said Soon.

In fact, so powerful that governments worldwide are finding a way to intervene and censor information online, even Singapore’s. 

“This is the year of government intervention,” he revealed, but warned that “social media has become so powerful that any government that tries to dabble in it will find it difficult.”

Ironically, due to the array of information available now, he believes people will be looking to hear voices of authority more than ever especially since the old media model as a curator is gone.

Mason believes that filters are becoming increasingly important in filtering information that is eventually fed to consumers. He cites an example of Yahoo!’’s newly introduced social bar. 

But to address the elephant in the room, with this wealth of information in this age, it begs the most important question: Will consumers still pay for content?

To this, Soon remains confident consumers will still pay for three things: (1) Financial information that businesses or individuals can make use of to make money, (2) sports and (3) porn.