When I sent out my first social media newsletter (this one) in January 2016, I wanted to share ideas on how to make the most of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. And I wanted people to feel more positive and empowered about using social media. I had a simple metric to decide which stories to feature – the ones that had the most link clicks when I shared them on Twitter.

Four years on, we’re in a very different place. I’m seeing less interest in social media tips and higher engagement around broader, more political stories. My top tweets from the last 12 months included links to articles on surveillance, child safety, and geopolitics.

I need a new voice for changing times. So I’m launching Free Speech.

Sign up to my new social media newsletter here.

Free Speech will cover 5 big talking points every month, focusing on power and influence. I can see from my Twitter Analytics what’s been popular over the last year. So these are the topics I’ll cover:

1. Activism: keeping social media free

Unlike traditional media, social media have no gatekeepers. Anyone with internet access (currently 60 per cent of the global population) can have a voice and build a network. From young Moroccans talking openly about sexual activity on Facebook (in a country where sex outside marriage is a jailable offence – listen to Leila Slimani on Start The Week) to the spread of movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #FridaysForFuture and #MeToo, this free access is a powerful and important thing (see Why social media are still worth saving).

2. Privacy: protecting personal freedoms

We may not pay in cash to set up a social media account, but we hand over intrinsic rights to platform owners when we agree to the terms and conditions. Privacy and data protection are crucial issues in the future development of social media. In the UK, organisations like the Open Data Institute, the Open Rights Group, doteveryone and the government are doing what they can to hold the big tech platforms to account, but there’s far more work to be done. Legislation moves slowly and is inevitably reactive.

3. Openness: speaking out against censorship

Despite “freedom of expression” being protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, democracies in general are seeing a gradual erosion of political rights and civil liberties (see Freedom in the World 2019). Increasingly, national security is cited as a reason to restrict transparency, open debate and press freedom. Meanwhile, individuals are called out and bullied on social media for saying what they think. Women, and particularly women of colour, are disproportionately trolled online.

4. Truth: being honest with each other and ourselves

Misinformation and fake news are rife on social media. Algorithms prioritise inflammatory content, whether it is true or not. Meanwhile, there’s the corporate tradition of telling lies for self-protection. While this may work in the short term, protecting shareholder value and people’s jobs, it’s simply not sustainable in the long run. Free Speech is also about being free to speak up, call out and whistle-blow when it matters. It’s also about being free to tell the truth about yourself.

5. Influence: celebrating creativity

While the rest of the newsletter may be coming over all socio-cultural-political, I still want to share any work that catches my eye and inspires me. What’s not to like about a great campaign or stunningly imaginative use of social media? Viral content like the Dorset rap from Jimmy’s Iced Coffee and the £100 Christmas “ad of the year”, or experiments like Lush UK basing its whole social strategy on a hashtag should still make the cut. I’m not just looking at speech but creative expression in its broadest form. All social content, from video and podcasts through to private messaging and augmented reality will be covered. The ways we communicate and how they’re changing continue to fascinate me – and you too, I hope!

A bit about me

I’ve been working in social media since 2008. I used to be optimistic about its potential. In 2009 I published a book celebrating social media in the workplace. Then in 2010, I argued the merits of social media on stage in Berlin with Andrew Keen, one of Silicon Valley’s most famous critics. In 2014, I came first in Social Media Week’s Top 10 Twitter influencers. Everything was peachy.

In late 2016, stories began to appear about fake news on Facebook. I started following Carole Cadwalladr’s reporting on what she then called the rightwing fake news ecosystem. By the time the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in 2018, I was concerned and unhappy about what was happening to social media. I no longer felt that comfortable encouraging people to use it.

Power and influence

I heard a radio programme about Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of cultural capital. Bourdieu defined cultural capital as the way power and influence is passed down through generations. Since learning about this, I’ve been interested in how social media amplifies and distorts cultural capital – and can make us as humans behave and feel differently. Social media influencers often seem to come from nowhere, but they create new power bases, hierarchies and cultural norms. Just look at the Kardashians.

Join the conversation

Social media is a powerful medium. Powerful in a different way than we originally thought.

And it’s still early days.

I’m concerned about the impact of biased algorithms and AI on human behaviour and emotional wellbeing, and the unchecked use of personal data. If digital platforms backed by venture capital inevitably lead to surveillance capitalism, what are the alternatives?

I’m still exploring how this all works. I hope you can join me on the journey. Let me know what you think. Tell me about your experiences – good and bad. And share any interesting things you’ve seen.

Sign up to Free Speech here.

The first edition of my new social media newsletter is out tomorrow.

It will be lovely to see you! 🙂

[NOTE: Subscription links updated September 2022 when Free Speech moved to Substack]