Why did Wetherspoons really shut down its Facebook, Instagram and Twitter? The possible reasoning behind pubs’ bizarre decision

The pubs' announcement was vague – but there are clues in other statements that Wetherspoons has never been keen on social media

Andrew Griffin
Monday 16 April 2018 08:52 BST
JD Wetherspoon to close Twitter, Instagram and Facebook of all its 900 pubs after online abuse of MPs

Wetherspoons has announced that it will shut down its social media accounts. But why?

The bizarre decision, announced this morning, came as a surprise to fans of the pub chain. The decision applies not only to the central accounts but also those owned by the nearly 900 pubs that are run by the company.

It was announced with references to trolling of MPs and other problems brought about by social media. But what's the real reason all of this has happened – and how worried should the social networks be?

The company's stated reasoning noted that the decision came in the midst of a range of bad news about social media: the trolling of MPs and people from religious and ethnic minorities, the abuse of personal data and the addictive nature of the platforms themselves. No doubt there are other reasons, too – but here we pick through some of the explanations and the context.

What does Wetherspoons have to say about all this?

In a statement posted to its Twitter account, the company was a little vague and gave no clear reason why the accounts would be shut down.

"In a world of social media, J D Wetherspoon has decided to close down all Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts for individual pubs and head office," it wrote.

"Rather than using social media, we will continue to release news stories and information about forthcoming events on our website (jdwetherspoon.com) and in our printed magazine – Wetherspoon News.

"If you’ve been active in contacting us through social media, please continue to feed back at your local pub or via customer services, through our website."

But chairman Tim Martin has elaborated a little more on the thinking, arguing that the company is "going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business". He has also said that he objected to the trolling of MPs on the site.

"I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever, and this is the overwhelming view of our pub managers," he said in a statement.

"It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion.

"We will still be as vocal as ever through our Wetherspoon News magazine, as well as keeping the press updated at all times.

"We will also be maintaining our website and the Wetherspoon app and encourage customers to get in touch with us via our website or by speaking with the manager at their local pub."

Is that really the reason?

Wetherspoons have been notably vague about the reasoning behind their decision, and it seems to have come largely out of the blue.

It is notable that Mr Martin believes that social media in general is challenging the business of pubs. Clearly, it is unlikely that Wetherspoons' decision will reverse that trend – something that they are no doubt aware of – but it is worth noting that other

Asked by Imbibe magazine at the end of last year what the biggest threat to the industry was, he pointed to social media before pointing to other issues.

"I think pubs have been quite heavily challenged by social media," he said. "When I was at school and university and for some years after that, if you wanted to socialise you had to get out of the house and see people and the main place that people met up was the pub. But now people can socialise online in their own home."

Of course, this also has the advantage of driving publicity itself. There is no doubt that Wetherspoons' decision will be far more talked about than any other pub today – or many other days too.

Did Wetherspoons really use their social media accounts?

Yes – though not necessarily with all that much efficiency. While all the accounts were relatively active, it's obvious from a quick look through them that they didn't form a key part of the company's strategy before they shut down.

The official Wetherspoons account has a considerably 44,000 followers. But it rarely tweets: it hadn't posted at all in April until its announcement, but before that posted roughly once a day, usually highlighting something from the chain's menu.

Much the same is true of its Facebook account, too. Though it had considerably more followers – around 100,000 at the time of writing – it posted the same pictures as on Twitter and received little engagement on them.

Individual pubs also have Facebook and Twitter accounts, which are run with much the same enthusiasm. The Independent's local Wetherspoons, for instance – The William Morris in Hammersmith – has not sent a tweet since 2017, and even then only did so by automatically pulling through a post from Facebook.

The company has not been against technology: they have recently introduced an app that lets anyone order from their phone. But it was evidently sceptical about the value of social media even before it decided to shut down its accounts,

Is it true that businesses don't need social media accounts?

This claim is the broadest one made by Mr Martin, and the one that could give the biggest pause for thought. It comes at a very tough time for social networks: Facebook is being attacked on all sides after data abuse scandals and the threat of regulation, and Twitter is still struggling to grow.

Still, just about every large business uses social media, and many prioritise it as a key way to drive their growth. The social networks are often giving data about the huge amounts of value that those accounts provide to the people who use them.

But Mr Martin specifically says that this is the prevailing wisdom. So he may have spotted something before everyone else has.

How worried will the social networks be about this decision?

It's unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg is panicking about British pubs leaving his platform today. But there's one part of Mr Martin's statement that should trouble him.

"It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion," he said. And he is far from the only person to do so.

A range of people – many of them veterans of tech companies – have warned that social networks are damaging society and the people who use them. Even at the companies themselves, there appears to be a growing recognition of the bad effects they might have: Facebook, for instance, is trying to encourage more meaningful interactions on the site and is conducting research into the damage it can do, and Mark Zuckerberg has committed to fix the site in 2018.

So its unlikely that Wetherspoons is going to bring down Facebook. But that doesn't mean the social networks should not be worried.

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