This article has been peer approved

22 Oct 2018  |  Dom Whitehurst 
This article has been peer approved

Channel 4’s The Circle highlights the value of social media peer approval for brands, writes Wavemaker's Dom Whitehurst

Channel 4’s recent reality series, The Circle, which invited contestants to win up to £50,000 by building their online personalities and accruing the most ‘likes’ on social media, was branded as harmful to mental health by some campaigners.

Kanye West has levelled similar criticisms, arguing that social media platforms – specifically Twitter – should give users the option to hide their follower count, or level of engagement, such as retweets, writing on Twitter of “an intense negative impact on self worth”.

Yet there’s no avoiding that social media and the validation we get from it is now a huge part of our lives. The Circle built a show around this new reality, hopefully making us more aware of how social media works, and of its impact, both positive and negative.

It offered a ‘behind the platform’ viewpoint, showing the difference between users’ thoughts and their actions, and reflected social trends that exist off and online: projecting false impressions of ourselves; lying about how we’re feeling; and also how communities can rally together to support each other all driven by a desire for positive affirmation on social media.

Social metrics quickly demonstrate the popularity of the messages that we choose to share, and as The Circle illustrated so effectively, these signals can significantly impact our behaviour online, whether that be for good or for bad. So to come back to Kanye’s question, should we hide metrics?

Philosophical debates aside, metric-free social media doesn’t exist in any substantial form, and for good reason. None of the major social networks hide users’ stats as this would reduce the frequency with which people interact with their platform. The notification to update on new followers, likes, shares or comments, is their opportunity to serve some dopamine and encourage audiences to log back on.

Given then, that we are likely just going to have to accept metrics will always be a part of social platforms, if we as consumers are adjusting our behaviour to 'fit in’ does that make for an environment where brands are less risk averse, wanting only to receive positive feedback from their consumers?

The answer is, apart from that special vein of businesses that aspire to be disruptive, probably yes. What brand genuinely wants to invoke ire amongst its potential consumers?

Yet, even amongst an environment where we are all provided with a very visible and vocal right of reply, there are examples of brands that have still taken a stand, said something controversial and come out on top. Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign is one great example. The ad quickly transferred from TV and onto users’ own channels, polarising audiences as they decided whether they loved it or hated it.

News coverage followed the ad initially and, then later, the visceral reaction to it. The response almost became as famous as the creative itself, with the videos of people burning their trainers provoking further momentum. We know from Wavemaker’s own studies into the purchase journey that word of mouth is often the most powerful channel impacting consumers’ opinion of brands.

Nike managed to drive hugely positive word of mouth among its target audience of younger consumers, despite frustrating a swathe of others.

The social validation feedback loop, which emerged so clearly in The Circle, has such a large part to play in marketing campaigns such as Nike’s. Peer approval is the lifeblood of social media channels. We rely on the recommendations of our networks to help us to decide which programmes to watch, where to go on holiday, or who to vote for.

Despite the backlash against The Circle, it’s worth remembering that social media without peer approval is remarkably anti-social, and that quantifying and understanding this remains an important part of an advertiser’s success, especially if they can fight the urge to be universally popular.


Dom Whitehurst, Head of Social at Wavemaker

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