Emakina’s Leon Jacobs: advertising ruined social media

Author: Alex Papanastassiou

Digital meets human

The 14th edition of Digital First was marked by the impressive array of 138 speakers, sharing insights on digital marketing & transformation, jumping from IoT, AI, AR and VR over CRM, MSP, and VMS, to PPC, SEO, SEM and more hot acronyms. Emakina’s Leon Jacobs chose a more human angle for his presentation, and boldly stated that advertising has ruined social media.

Of course, the Exec Creative Director still passionately loves the profession he’s been doing for 9,000 days and counting. But somewhere along the way, he saw how the dream of social media as the great positive people connector across the globe was traded in for profit models and addictive mechanisms. Here is an overview of his talk!

Like airports, social networks sold out

Facebook started out with the dream to connect the people of the world. And Instagram began as a way to just make photos look good and then share them. But they began selling advertising to become profitable, just like the dramatic change in global airport designs.

Berlin’s old Tegel Airport’s ring road brings you to a drop off at the exact gate from which your flight leaves and there its is organized to channel you through ASAP. Other airports do the opposite. They are mega shopping malls that capture their audience waiting for their flight.

Instead of being the protocol of connection
to keep up with friends and family,
social networks have become marketplaces
for commerce and advertising.

Some of the smartest people in the world figure out more ways to keep people glued into their screens for as long as possible. They prey on our vulnerable side: our need to feel connected.

The power of advertising

What a powerful economic force advertising can be!  
The temptation to re-purpose a powerful connection platform into an advertising channel is logical but we need to consider the consequences.

Leon Jacobs: ‘My 13-year-old daughter and her friends show how much their generation is affected by social media. Their fear of missing out makes them share their snapchat login details. This way they can replace each other when one of them can’t communicate and maintain their “streaks”, the snap sequences for which you gain little flames when you keep them going.  These flames have no connection value, they only allow you to brag how good you are at replying to other people who are replying to you. This system is so addictive these kids show serious withdrawal signs when their snapchat drug is taken away.’

It’s like food producers adding sugar to keep you hooked.

But today, every producer has to be more transparent about the sugar content in their products. And we are aware of the dangers associated with too much sugar. So, we should do the same with the paralyzing effect these false senses of connection create in us. Surely, this addiction is as dangerous?


It’s time to take a big step back and ask what we want for our society and our species. Do we want to reverse evolve into monkeys dancing around the monolith in Kubrick’s seminal 2001 Space Odyssey? Or do we want to improve, and become more enlightened and more creative?

We have the potential to start taking better care of our Earth, the natural resources, cities, and each other. We could even conquer the dark depths of space, populate Mars and go beyond! But we will not get far with our brains and thumbs stuck, scrolling through the endless feeds of our social networks, fueled by endless advertising.

What is parading itself as connection, is disconnection. Disconnection from each other and from ourselves.

Psychologists see how much our social networks chip away at our ability to empathize with the real experiences of our friends and family. Because we all have a tendency to put on a highlight reel, we never know when there is a lowlight. And we can’t afford to lose that empathy because that makes humanity possible.

It was probably inevitable that advertising became the driving force for social networks. We can imagine many wonderful ideas about how social networks could have been crowdfunded or subscription-based. But it is doubtful if those would have scaled to the useful sizes they are now, thanks to advertising.

Send the Sunshine

Firstly, the networks themselves have to return to their original purpose.

Did you know that Instagram was loosely based on the idea of sharing sunshine? In 2006, Kevin Systrom and Mark Krieger at Stanford developed a concept called ‘Send the Sunshine’.  A server mapped two friends’ location. When one experienced miserable weather and the other sunshine, the server would encourage to send a bright picture to the friend under grey skies, making both people feel just a little bit better.

The peace dot

Systrom and Krieger’s tutor at Stanford, BJ Fogg, in later years imagined the peace dot. He encouraged social media networks to put up a third level ‘peace dot domain’ on their networks to promote peace through the power of their networks. So, there would be a peace.facebook.com, and a peace.linkedin.com etc.

Facebook’s peace dot page featured a wall of running updates of every new friend connection between an Israeli and a Palestinian. Peace dot Couchsurfing dot com – a forerunner to today’s Airbnb – showed connections between people of different ethnicities, normally at war with each, who crashed on each other’s couches.

In its protozoic state, social networks were really
intended to help humanity, not bring it down.

Fortunately, these networks are not made of concrete, glass and steel – like the new airports that take us hostage. They are made of bits and bytes and digital designers can go back to Berlin’s Tegel state of social networks, with a combination of clever design, smart regulation and advertising that understands how to use the channel for good.

Tax social overconsumption

Clever design will come when social networks no longer need to hold on to people’s attention. Former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris recently floated the idea to introduce taxation on social companies when usage reaches a certain tipping point. This is already happening in the energy sector in some US states. You want people to use the product, but you don’t want them to over-consume because that will harm the environment. So, you introduce a tax at a point where the usage reaches a similar level.

Tristan Harris started the Center for Humane Technology

Like in energy management, this extra budget can fund research or startups helping people use technology in a more meaningful way. And of course, the monetary punishment will force the social companies to employ the very smart people they have to figure out better ways to help people manage their attention.

Service design can help save social media

Agencies can think of meaningful channels as part of a service design customer journey instead of focusing on continuous content designed to hook people in. These channels can inform, guide, coach and connect, creating a win for brands, the social networks and most importantly – the users.

Some brands are already getting it right. KLM developed a complete always-on social presence that delivers a powerful meaningful connection through social media, setting the pace for the rest. You can make a change to your flight reservation with Twitter DM and use it to find more information about your connecting flight.

With the right design questions, brands can use
social media channels to help wire together brains
to improve the lives of people around the world.

In a workshop in Cape Town, I saw how young girl coders used service design to connect retired teachers via Facebook messenger to high schoolers, prevented to get to school by social problems. Students could ask questions to a Watson powered bot that relayed the question to teachers specializing in that subject, passed on their answer, repeating the process until each student was comfortable with the material. And the bot of course learned from these interactions, to be able to also help without the intervention of the teachers.

Advertising is killing social media but can save it.
And all of us.

Advertising has the potential to show us the higher purpose of humanity. Brands can keep reminding us of the big fat why that sits in the middle of our human existence and our place in this universe.

Today we see how advertising is killing social media. But it is up to us, those of us in agencies, owning the brands and these powerful platforms, to remind ourselves of where we want to go. Technology has the potential to make us devolve, or to take us to the moon and further, in space, and here on Earth.

About the author

Leon Jacobs is Executive Creative Director at Emakina. He is an award-winning creative and internationally recognized as a strategic thinker with a keen interest in storytelling. Leon has a solid understanding of business drivers and combines sparkling ideas with an abundance of positive motivational energy.

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