Sometimes, marketing ideas have greatness thrust upon them. Certainly, that’s how it felt in early 2009, when people in boardrooms suddenly started talking about social media in a serious way. A wicked recession was putting pressure on marketing budgets, as recessions always do. Meanwhile, social media was being partly credited for a historic U.S. presidential election win—you know, that hopey-changey one.

These open and mostly free platforms looked like salvation to marketers in those dark days, even if it was already clear that dealing with them would be “like having an angry tiger by the tail,” as candidate Obama presciently put it at the time. Idealism was in the air. The people had a voice, and all marketers had to do to win was have a conversation with them.

Six years later, you’d be forgiven for wondering if that conversation is still a good idea. If the social web was ever a marketplace microcosm, it doesn’t feel that way now. Even progressive marketers often agree, privately at least, that it’s not very nice out there anymore. There’s a growing sense that what you see online is often, as one study by the Pew Research Center put it, “at odds with overall public opinion.” And that’s when the discussion is civil, which it’s increasingly not. Sometimes you’d hardly know the compassionate, decent people in the street and the bitter, remorseless trolls on Twitter were of the same species.

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Bullying and trolling may seem irrelevant to social media marketing, but for its biggest platforms, the issue is existential. By one estimate, social media employs more than 100,000 contract workers—mostly overseas, in places like the Philippines—just to scrub its content of hate, pornography and worse; that’s roughly 14 times as many people as work at Facebook. The latter has its own internal Protect and Care team to deal specifically with bullying, probably because it affects fully two-thirds of its teen users.

Nor is the issue isolated to any one platform. Reddit, with its proudly web-native user base, has been described by one prominent tech news outlet as “drowning in hate speech.” Video game enthusiasts have been busily tearing each other apart recently over what one game designer called the “latent racism, homophobia and misogyny” that pervades that culture. Online, it sometimes feels as if the sane, reasonable people are either a minority or silent or gone.

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If anybody knows which one it is, they aren’t saying. But there are clues. Facebook’s plummeting organic reach numbers (currently in the low single digits) have long hinted at declining engagement there, and it’s widely acknowledged that teens are abandoning the platform in droves. One wonders if Facebook’s embarrassing social-engineering experiment last spring, in which users’ feeds were edited in an attempt to lift their moods, wasn’t a desperate ploy to keep people coming back. Twitter’s eroding engagement has investors worried, too, especially given that the service has nowhere near Facebook’s critical mass. If the number of genuine consumers using social media isn’t dwindling, there’s an increasing sense that their level of interest is—and that they’re finding more agreeable company in a growing constellation of more socially intimate mobile apps.

That should worry marketers, because interested, engaged consumers are the only good reason to be there. For the size of its audiences, social media marketing is labour-intensive and high risk. Marketers do it in hopes of getting “influencers” to sprinkle their brands with the pixie dust of peer endorsement. But this logic falls apart when social media communities turn anti-social. When that happens, companies are risking their reputations to impress the wrong people.

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Not all social media marketing is a waste of time—when it works, it offers some hope for a post-mass-media world. But these big, happy fan clubs are becoming unicorns. If your brand already has a social media community, cherish it. But if you think you’re going to find one now, be careful. That ship might have sailed—and the people it left behind might have had it coming.

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Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award. This column is from the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

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