Too Much Social Media, Not Enough Social Message

Web 2.0 Map

Social media is any networked information technology, tool or platform that derives its content and principal value from user engagement and permits those users to interact with that content. But last time I checked (in), the content stream being produced through my media stream was becoming a lot less social (Web 2.0) and more of a throwback to the media of old (Web 1.0); the implications could be considerable for those wishing to reach new audiences or create them in the first place. 

It’s been a rough ride for social media companies. On Friday Facebook’s shares were at a record low since their IPO a couple months ago. Last month, Twitter provoked much concern after dropping its partnership with LinkedIn as part of its desire to have greater control over its messaging, prompting concern that Twitter might end up closing itself off to 3rd party applications like EchoFon, HootSuite and Tweetbot to ensure quality. This desire for tailoring and control of messages and trends has prompted some to suggest that Twitter may be ruining itself in the process.

The issue is not just one of control, but of a disrespect for the complexity and conversation that makes social media attractive to its users. In short: it’s about the social, not the media.

Social media, non social content

Scanning through my Facebook page its easy to see why their stock is dropping and will continue to do so. In their quest to justify their valuation, Facebook needs to find ways to make money from what people post and pictures of people’s kids, quips about daily hassles and joys, sharing cat videos, and posting check-ins at a local restaurant aren’t enough to justify a $100bn valuation. To do this, they need advertising dollars and deals with game makers and app developers to drive revenue up. Aside from the possibility of games, there is little social about advertising, no matter what kind of spin is offered.

Within a year my Facebook page has gone from a loose collection of social miscellany from friends and family to a steady stream of non-social junk with advertisements in the form of page updates, news stories that require me to accept an app that sends me more ads, and a litany of non-essential information.

The signal to noise ratio has officially flipped from more noise and less signal.

Bit by bit, Facebook is choking its users to death with ephemera and it would not surprise me if in two years we refer to it as we do MySpace today. YouTube is also running perilously close to offering too much media with not enough message as users increasingly have to sit through advertisements or click on banner ads before accessing content. News sites like the Globe and Mail will run a 30 second advertisement before allowing you to see a 20 second news clip, a 150% advertisement to content ratio on some stories.

I remember a few years ago when my email took the same turn. Now, probably 75 per cent of my received (non-spam!) email goes unread and is immediately deleted on sight. This isn’t necessarily spam, much of it is bacn, the kind of updates that I might have subscribed to voluntarily or I receive as part of a professional membership or affiliation. However, it’s severely disabled email’s potential and is now a ‘necessary evil’ instead of a useful tool I welcomed having in my toolkit.

Speaking to colleagues, it is not unreasonable to hear of people receiving messages in the hundreds each day and spending more than 3 hours per day just managing that content alone. How is this helping us communicate better? To learn?

This is one gigantic distraction and is not proving useful to improving our communications or helping us integrate the knowledge we receive and already have. Some claim that the era of big data will allow advertisers to target their ads with such exceptional focus and appropriateness that they will be serving us as much as we are needed to service them. I somehow doubt that.

From Web 2.0 back to 1.0

Consider the definition of what social media is on Wikipedia (as Web 2.0):

Web 2.0 is a concept that takes the network as a platform for information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design,[1] and collaboration on the World Wide Web. A Web 2.0 site allows users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators (prosumers) of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where users (consumers) are limited to the passive viewing of content that was created for them. Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sites, blogs, wikis, video sharing sites, hosted services, web applications, mashups and folksonomies.

When my social media stream is filled with promoted tweets, sponsored posts, ‘like’ requests on advertisements or updates from projects, I lose the social and just end up with media.

Social media is at its best when it is a conversation. Sometimes the conversation involves a lot of talking on one side, but there is a genuine back-and-forth, an unpredictability to it, and a non-linear dynamic that makes it interesting. Straight-to-viewer messages that offer no ways to engage except to watch, click off or ‘like’ don’t make for a conversation.

Imposing Structure and Losing Complexity

In trying to turn a setting where complexity, emergence and non-linearity come alive and work to create conversation, social media property managers are stifling the very thing that makes their tools and platforms so attractive. Creativity is born from serendipity and diverse connections. In imposing structures that remove or highly limit this potential for discovery by adding unnecessary noise, we are a risk of losing some of the best tools for idea testing, discussion, and knowledge translation we have ever known by reducing the opportunities for serendipity.

It is the commercial drive that contributed to bringing these tools in the first place, however that drive can lead to blindness creating an Internet ivory tower rather than a true marketplace of ideas as advocated in the Cluetrain Manifesto, which looked at how markets operate as innovation hubs by promoting conversations.

From markets to artists, the messages that are created by media are related to the media itself. Marshall McLuhan knew that and so did his peer, Edmund Snow Carpenter. Mathematician-artist a Youtube video maker vihart knows this too and spoke to Carpenter’s thesis in a terrific short video below.

In critiquing the push for standard ‘best practices’ in social media, vihart (and Carpenter, by posthumous extension) point to the ways in which the traditional media formats that advertisers desperately wish to use to contain your attention (and limit your feedback) is exactly the opposite of the new media.

Taken from the forward of Carpenter’s book, They Became What They Beheld, (and explicated beautifully by vihart) come some rules of communication commonly pursued by traditionalists and reasons why we shouldn’t pay attention. These rules as noted by Carpenter are:

1. Know your audience and address yourself directly to it

2. Know what you want to say and say it clearly and fully

3. Reach the maximum audience by using existing channels

Whatever sense this may have made in world of print, it makes no sense today. In fact, the reverse of each rule applies.

If you address yourself to an audience, you accept at the outset the basic premises that unite the audience. You put on the audience, repeating cliches familiar to it. But artists don’t address themselves to audiences; they create audiences. The artist talks to himself out lout. If what he has to say is significant, others hear & are affected.

The trouble with knowing what to say and saying it clearly and fully, is that clear speaking is generally obsolete thinking. Clear statement is like an art object: it is the afterlife of the process which called it into being. The process itself is the significant step and, especially at the beginning, is often incomplete and uncertain.

The problem with full statement is that it doesn’t involve: it leaves no room for participation; it’s address to consumer, not co-producer.

One is left watching this video with the question: what happens when social media has too much media, not enough message? 

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