Not long after the Boston Marathon bombings occurred on Monday afternoon, several Twitter users noted that these kinds of real-time news events illustrate how incredible the service is as a source of breaking news, but at the same time how terrible it is.
Sure enough, there were plenty of fake news reports to go around on Monday, from reports of suspicious vehicles to the arrest of alleged perpetrators -- just as there were during superstorm Sandy…
For the past few days, I have been thinking about the evolution of what media is and its expanded role in the information ecosystem. What got me thinking was Twitter co-founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey's decision to blog his side of the story about his reduced role at Twitter. A few months ago, when Facebook was buying Instagram, …
When Karl Marx asked: Who owns the presses? he was referring to the ability of wealthy private individuals to control the means of knowledge production and dissemination and thus, influence society as capital owners, not as citizens. The unequal voice of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat was what gave them undue social power. But what happens when the owners and generators of wealth (knowledge, information) shift and the result is a community that relies on the medium of production without the control of it?
Owning the presses
Social media presents something quite unusual when it comes to the traditional views of ownership and wealth creation. It also upends the traditional perspectives of journalism and marketing, where the content is co-created and edited, emergent and distributed through a mesh of networks, uncontrolled. It is a new space for which traditional models of ownership, rights, responsibilities, and governance are all joined up in something that is similar enough to have familiarity, yet different enough to be alien at the same time. It’s not a wicked problem, but it does contain some problem wickedness.
With social media, the messages are that of the users, arguably creating the most democratic (or at least free) environments for communication. Although hosts such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter have occasionally squelched certain users’ voices for reasons of legality, politics or questionable fit with their “community values”, most of what happens on these platforms is up to its users. That is what makes social media as powerful as it is. Social media is nothing without its users’ content.
My definition of social media is:
Social media is any networked electronic media that derives its principal value from user participation
Yet, this does not render Marx’s question about press ownership irrelevant when updated to today, rather it changes the answer.
It’s paradoxical in that the very market forces of competition that can seed innovation and the mechanisms provided by venture capital and capitalist investment is the reason we have the social media platforms we do, yet the manner in which it is governed is much like that of socialism at best, communism at worst. Investment of private financial capital has helped raise the profile and capability of social media companies to leverage social capital. It is why open source, community-owned or shared tools like Diaspora* or Identi.ca have come nowhere close to replacing Facebook and Twitter respectively. The free market creates the tools, yet it is not the free market that sustains the community created by those tools, nor can it fully account for how to grow the capability of those tools.
It is also because these companies operate within markets rather than as national projects, that they can disseminate globally with relative ease. Thanks to this dissemination, citizens living in oppressive media environments can reach out and connect with those outside of such spaces allowing things like the Arab Spring and increased freedoms in Myanmar to emerge with greater outside support than had these tools not been available.
The cost of free
While social media has done much to enhance democracy movements, human rights watches, and access to information, there is a slight problem . The most widespread social networks are all free to use, which means that they need to generate revenue from sources other than user fees, which usually means advertising. And advertising means clutter, clutter leads to confusion and that turns people away (witness the loss of viewership from TV at a time when perhaps the highest quality productions are being aired ). But unlike television, there is a social cost to free with social media. Human capital in the order of millions of hours of time and a similar amount in dollars is spent creating the very content that allows social media to survive and thrive.
With the relaunching of MySpace we are reminded of how far social media platforms can go up and down. Just a few years ago, MySpace was the darling of social media with millions of users and lots of press. Hundreds of thousands of hours of individuals’ time went into making and maintaining MySpace pages, resources that are now, ironically (given Justin Timberlake’s involvement in the platform) Dead and Gone.
It can be argued that similar deep investments of time in building and maintaining Facebook pages, timelines, and Tweet projects exist. What if these go away?
Or what if they become unusable? Anyone who has spent time on Facebook (which is a few hundred million people strong) has seen the steady creep of unsolicited content emerging in their news feed. This includes notices about pages you may like, game invitations, increased posts from companies or services you chose to “like” and more. Facebook needs revenue to justify its initial valuation and a big focus now is on the mobile experience where an increasing amount of its traffic is now generated from. The problem is that mobile ads are even more distracting than those on other systems because of the smaller screen size and different interface. It is difficult enough to surf the content on a laptop, let alone a handheld device. If you think your desktop version of Facebook is cluttered, imagine what the mobile version of that could look like?
Facebook is rapidly becoming a ‘necessary evil’ for me and others like me. I have few other means of communicating with certain people other than Facebook. This should be a good thing for Mark Zuckerberg and company, right? Maybe not. For some, there is little joy in using Facebook anymore as it gets swarmed with messages and the endless quest for likes and attention from those who are not even your friends. The result is that more people in my circles are reducing their use of Facebook or breaking from it altogether largely because it holds far less esteem than other brands such as Apple or Google. There is a brand cost to Facebook’s decisions.
The brand is not the only thing that costs; there are hidden social costs as well. Among those vying for likes and attention are charities, non-profit, health and social service groups who have opted to spend precious resources on building up profiles on social media, curating content and relying on platforms like Facebook and Twitter for building their brand, relationships or using it as part of their internal and external communications. They are doing this because that is where the most people are and they feel the pressure to go where those numbers are, even if they are fickle (see MySpace).
Should we care?
The business model of social
One answer is: it doesn’t matter. Social media companies are businesses and it is their prerogative to make money. However, there are real social costs associated with this drive for profit in the social mediasphere. If people start fleeing Facebook or can’t manage Twitter because of restrictions or choices made based on that company’s market optimization plan (e.g., advertising, relaxed privacy etc..), then the social capital created through those services decreases, requiring the increase in new social and financial capital to support something else. For those that sought to dive into social media this means retraining staff, retooling media platforms, redesigning messages, and in some cases rebranding entirely to suit the next big thing. This costs real money.
While it is bad enough that individuals lose their social investment, this has bigger implications for health care and protection providers, charitable organizations, social service groups and alike others who all rely partly on social media for communications and relationship development. A recent paper in the Journal of Medical Internet Research looked at the factors influencing social media adoption among physicians. In that study 58% of physicians surveyed said that social media enabled them to look after patients more effectively, and 60% said it improved the quality of the patient encounter. It has taken a long time to get health care professionals on board, but the stability and relative ubiquity of platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have made investment in social media a safer bet.
Sure, media changes and evolves, but what we are seeing with social media today (particularly the largest players) is something never seen before. There is a global scale that has fundamentally altered the communications landscape. Facebook and Twitter are not just tools, they are platforms not unlike email and that makes them different.
Virtually every successful social media platform has started out as free, uncluttered and focused on building a user base. And every one of those faces the question: what is the business model? Advertising will only go so far and the efforts to engage in ‘promoted’ anything (tweets, videos etc..) can run the risk of turning a medium based on authenticity into something much less so.
What alternatives? More questions.
We face a situation where the very entrepreneurial spirit and funding through capitalism has produced a somewhat self-governed media system run by workers who produce the knowledge, which is like socialism. All ‘ism’s’ aside for the moment, there is benefit to having conversations about the ownership and control of the social media presses in an era where the media is more than just the messages and now integral to many of the operations and livelihoods of organizations and individuals who do not work for social media. There is a disjuncture between ownership, the means of production, the workers, and the product that doesn’t fit any previous model posed by Marx, Adam Smith or anyone.
Unlike the coal miner and their families that lose when the mine shuts down, there is some foresight available to them knowing that they are in a particular industry. For social media users, their communications are just part of their life not a part of their industry.Put another way, consider email. Right now, if your email service is failing you or fails as a business you have the ability to get a new one without disrupting your experience of and access to the medium itself. Gmail, Yahoo! or any corporate mailserver will generally produce the same thing even if the interface and management of that experience varies. We don’t have real alternative to Facebook or Twitter right now. When over a billion people use these services it is time to ask: should we? Can we? Is that a good idea?
Is social media getting to be an ‘essential service’?
Does social media belong in the commons? If so, will that inhibit the necessary innovation sparks that led to the development of the current tools in the first place? Who would manage it?
If these went away, what would replace it? Or will we see a bubble and lose so much trust in a collapse that these tools fail to regain interest?
Should we pay for social media in exchange for better usability and less clutter? Will anyone who had it for free do this? And who is left out of those social worlds if they can’t pay? Right now social media’s great asset is that anyone can join and join to anyone else who allows it. Nationalism, politics, financial means, sex, race, gender all don’t matter in terms of fundamental access, but that could change.
Would my Twittersphere be less if only people like me were on it? What kinds of conversations wouldn’t take place?
If we all provide the content and labour, should we have a say in who owns (or runs) the presses in a world of social media?
What would Marx and Adam Smith think of all of this? Maybe if they were here today they could Tweet a debate on it.
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, 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?
18 days abroad and a bad set of Internet connections gave me a rare opportunity to take a break from social media. What happens when the lives we live online disappear, even momentarily?
This week I came back from a wonderful trip to the United Kingdom and Germany to a social media world that had been largely ignored for the first time in years. As one who works online a lot, whether using Twitter, or Facebook, Foursquare, or this blog (or one of the others I contribute to), the tools that fall under the rubric of social media are ones I use daily. So it was an interesting experiment of sorts to see what might happen when I left it largely alone for a couple weeks.
In truth, the experiment was forced on my by a series of unreliable Internet connections and the unwillingness to pay for a service I was supposed to have access to for free (I will not use this as a platform to badmouth the service, although I was disappointed). So I relied largely on a small window of time every few days when I went for an espresso at Starbucks and used their free service. What was interesting was noting how much I wasn’t missing. For reasons of expediency, I checked my email and maybe glanced at Facebook occasionally, but that was it.
No photosharing with Instagram
No updating the blog
I checked in almost nowhere (except the airports, because I like the Jetsetter badge on Foursquare)
No reading my RSS feed using Google Reader
I didn’t even respond to any of the Google+ invitations I received until I got home.
No YouTube videos were watched
Nor did I create any content for anyone else’s blog or read anything that wasn’t the news — and even that was tiny.
What this showed me (once again, I’ve seen it before) was how powerful the everyday pull of social media can make things seem so big, bold, important and urgent. Yet, when removed for a couple weeks, there was actually little if anything that I can determine was worth missing. It’s something to ponder when the pull to update our status and track ourselves and others online can be nearly addictive when involved in the everyday.
It’s good to be back, but also to have had some time away from social media. In taking time away, it reminded me about what it is there for and what it offers, as well as what it takes away.
Social networking research is becoming a hot topic as people discover the potential that mapping has for guiding policy and practice, however like many other “hot” research methods, there is a need to go beyond the numbers to make sense of what they really mean lest we create beautiful maps and have no place to go with them.
The rise of social media applications and the ability for anyone to use simple tools to create, extend and shape their social graph with a mouse click or tap of the app has helped stoke interest in network research. Social networking methods are those that tend to favour quantitative development of maps and numerical representations of what a social network looks like. We are most often terribly ignorant of the role and position we play within a network so to see ourselves and peers positioned literally on a map can be revealing in more ways than one.
Between 2005 and 2006 my colleague Tim Huerta and I did a study that looked at the formation of a community of practice (CoP) in tobacco control through the lens of the social network and published a paper on this based on that work. Part of the study involved giving a group of people who were meeting face-to-face a survey and ask them about who they knew that influenced their work in the web-assisted tobacco interventions (the CoP’s focus), how well they knew the people they identified, and what kind of things they did together. This data was entered over the first night and analyzed for the next day’s meeting with the network map revealed (see summary here, full article here) .
While the map itself was generated through quantitative analysis, revealing patterns akin to the image above, it was the meaning that people gave to those connections that allowed this group to begin envisioning how they could leverage their untapped potential in the network to advance their interests as a community. This sense-making process is too often neglected in social network research and risks turning something meaningful (like a relationship) into a statistic that can more easily be dismissed — or misunderstood.
This week another social network study was published looking at tobacco control and the use of Twitter as a medium to support that. This study didn’t map the network per se, but rather looked at the type of people in the network and what the content of the messages that were shared within it. This represents another type of social networking study where the researchers aim to peer into the activities of a group of people who are interconnected and describe from afar what they see and who they think they see. This has some utility for those wanting to delve into areas where there is little known (such as Twitter and smoking cessation), but can also mislead people if used improperly. Networks are dynamic, with influence shifting and participants activity modulating greatly within its lifespan and because of this, cross-sectional data poses the risk of capturing a slice of activity that might not reflect the whole.
Consider the analogy of slicing a watermelon sideways and doing so at the end, rather than in the middle: if you love watermelon, you want the middle slice because it’s bigger and richer than the end. The same might be true for social networking activity.
The tendency to want to produce network maps using numbers alone to explain them is highly problematic. Even Facebook has decided it will give greater priority to what people do in the network, rather than how big the network is as evidenced by the push to add Skype-powered video to its service this week. Facebook knows that their value is determined less by how many friends you have, but more about how you truly connect: photosharing, comments, game-playing.
True, this can all be quantified, but they are going a little further beyond the numbers. The Facebook example provides an interesting example of potential social network studies that could look at the type and content of the photos shared, how people have reacted to them, and what kind of social movement has been formed by the content created for and shared through that network. If you want to leverage a network for social change and good, this is the kind of stuff you need to focus on, not just the total numbers of people involved.
Powerful social network research is as much about having a good statistician as it is an anthropologist and together, they need to have the story that comes from it, woven together by the users and a good storytelling host.
What started as a simple column post a column on October 4th in the New Yorker has really turned into a firestorm of discussion over the last few days (reflecting a building crescendo of discontent and plaudits from those on each side of the debate). The latest volley in the debate has come from the founder of Twitter themselves in a piece in the Guardian. In that column, the chief Tweeters remark:
“It was a very well-constructed argument but it was kind of laughable.
“Anyone who’s claiming that sending a tweet by itself is activism, that’s ludicrous — but no one’s claiming that, at least no one that’s credible. If you can’t organise you can’t activate. I thought [the article] was entertaining but kind of pointless.”
They have a good point. But while Gladwell might be too dismissive of the power of tools like Twitter, it is easy to overstep and imply that information is power and having more of it networked leads to activation (something I discussed earlier this week).
Knowing and doing are very different and any analysis of major theories on behaviour change and the evidence, shows a relatively weak correlation between knowing more and doing more. It also shows an OK, but also not a strong correlation.
What does change people’s behaviour? Lots of things — and that’s the problem. The either/or thinking that permeates the discussion of social media is too often simplistic and driven by an interplay of ideas and values that are not always aligned with the evidence or personal experience.
People tend to change for the following reasons:
1. They have information that tells them there is a threat or a problem with the status quo;
2. Others believe that the behaviour should be changed;
3. The person changing actually cares what other people think;
4. That person has the skills and tools to be able to change;
5. The environment is supportive of change and facilitative (e.g. there are policies, procedures, access to resources — including time);
6. There are more pros to changing than cons (and there are more pros to the strategy of change than the cons);
7. A person actually wants to change (they are self-motivated and not doing things because everyone else thinks they should);
8. A person feels capable of making the change at all.
The more of these elements are present, the more likely the change is going to take place and stick. This is a big list and indicates that change isn’t always straightforward, and it certainly isn’t easy.
The revolution most likely will be Tweeted, but whether that is the cause or the consequence is why research on social media and social activism is needed. Otherwise, we will wind up with another chicken and egg problem.
Malcolm Gladwell’s recently published essay on social media and activism has been gaining a lot of attention from the tech world and social innovation crowd. For good reason too. He has managed to articulately skewer the idea that online social activism and the tools that advance it are any better or even as good as previous forms of activism such as the type witnessed during the civil rights movement.
Gladwell also takes aim at innovators.
Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.
Gladwell points to a new book, “The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” by business consultant Andy Smith and Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker, and how they use illustrations of how small acts such as forwarding an email request to search out bone marrow donors as examples of activism. His comparison is with the acts perpetuated in the 1950′s and 60′s in the United States south as part of the Civil Rights Movement where people physically put themselves in harms way and literally took action.
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.
This is an important distinction between participation and activism. But I argue that this paints things in too much of a black and white way of viewing the issue. What does activism mean? Gladwell doesn’t really say, pointing to examples like the protest at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and how it grew through people literally standing up and sitting down for their rights, as activism. Using Gladwell’s example, one might not distinguish between those sitting at the lunch counter from those outside. But is there a difference? Does it matter if you are at the front or the back of the line, after all, it still is a line isn’t it?
I think that really depends on what the line means in terms of its goals and actions. Participation is the same way. Does it matter if you watch a football game at home compared to watching it in a stadium, live, with 40000 other people? What about if you are watching it from the sidelines, on the bench, or whether you’re in the game handing the ball? When does it cease to be participation and when does it begin?
Social media is like that. There are those with dozens, hundreds even hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. Some people I know have more than 800 Facebook friends, even if Dunbar’s number suggests that we really can only have close to 150 substantive relationships in our lives. So what does that mean?
The problem I have with Gladwell’s analysis is that it slips too far towards either/or thinking about social media without considering the nuance withing a social network. Indeed, there are many who will sign a petition, forward on an email, and join a Facebook group denouncing something, supporting something else, and advocating another thing with little real attention paid to the topic or outcome. But the same is true of anything social. Most human beings like to be where others are.
Thousands join protests, yet only a few commit to the issue enough to go beyond the protest to write letters, put up posters, vocalize, and study the problem. The same is true of social networks. The difference is that social networks enable passive engagement easier than through other means. So it makes sense that the gap between those who do little and those who do a lot is large, but in the end, are there more people active? The stats are hard to confirm, because activism is so much different now.
Back in the 1950′s and 1960′s, a protest and a sit-in was novel, thus it attracted a lot of attention. Today, we have protest staging areas at events like the G20 because they are expected and almost predictable. Thus, they’ve lost their ability to hold the same level of attention as they once did. Same with the petition.
We’ve hit marks with Facebook groups pretty quickly illustrating how quick things go from novel to trite. The lesson isn’t that social media doesn’t work, rather it is that the speed to which we adapt is increasing. Innovations are coming far faster. Twitter is now the rage, but soon it might be something else, maybe something with video. But they all will have some staying power, the issue is that we just don’t know what that will be.
But if we continue to view things as working/not working, good/bad, real/fake we start to miss the point that these tools and technologies are doing something and are supporting real people, some of whom are doing a lot; to dismiss that is to risk squashing the spirit and potential that we all have to advocate and participate in change.
Malcolm Gladwell recently authored an article for the New Yorker that has been widely circulated and debated within the social media world. The piece, entitled Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, takes the stance that Twitter and other social media tools are not much better at facilitating social change than the coffee houses were before.
The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.
If you read Mashable, TechCrunch, Wired, GigaOm or any of the other major social media sites as I do, it becomes easy to get wrapped up in each device announcement with the idea that the world had indeed changed. The term “game changer” is used both as hyperbole, but also because many in the tech world really do believe that their game is changing with these new tools and technologies. Listening to podcasts like Search Engine or Spark, it’s easy to get seduced into the idea that everyone is using new media and cares when something new comes out.
I know people who are genuinely shocked to find out that certain folk don’t know the model number of their Blackberry, or give a hoot whether there is a new tablet computer. They aren’t in line for an iPad and can’t even imagine why one would do such a thing in the first place.
The problem with “everyone” is that they don’t exist. Outside of breathing oxygen, consuming nutrients and water, and life-sustaining bodily functions, there is pretty much nothing that “everyone” does. Indeed, there are actually few things that “most” of us do. But yet, this doesn’t prevent people from trying to proscribe things that are good for all of “us” or trying to show how terrible other things are for that same group of “us”
Gladwell’s essay is just another volley in a ping-pong match between the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, the true-believers and naysayers, the Jets and the Sharks and so on. It is so easy of a target to focus on the bad and the good and lump things into Black or White.
Grey is a much more difficult: it is not a solid colour.
We inhabit a world of greys. To defend Gladwell, he is right on many points. Twitter may have added a lot of context to the uprising in Iran, or the Moldovian revolution, but to hear those on the tech side speak, you would have thought that such events could not have happened without them. Look closely at the numbers and you’ll see that to be folly. However, what I would argue is that these tools made these two events much more visible to the world outside of those countries. If you were out of the loop on politics, but active on Twitter, the tweets from those countries could have awakened you to an entire social world — literally — out there that you were not aware of. That is where social media comes in.
Either / Or thinking makes for great copy in the news media business, not for policy and programming. For organizations working to reach their audiences, for health professionals looking to advance knowledge translation, and for people wanting to learn, eschewing social media because it’s no better than anything else before it is silly, just as foolish as embracing it to the point of believing that it can transform the world without paying attention to the social context in which those tools exist.
Social media is a “complexifier” of sorts. It adds more variation into a system, promotes networking among divergent perspectives (although not nearly as much as many techno-utopians would suggest according to research (see example)), and is dynamic and flexible. Social media permits voices to be heard in ways that could not be done before to the same extent, by offering multiple media channels. It is also global and mobile, but at the same time it only serves to connect those who are interested in using it, have the technological means (devices, networks, skills, resources), and are in a position where they can actually use it.
So as Canadians sit down for our Thanksgiving dinner today, consider how useful that Tweeting the play-by-play is when you’re trying to eat your turkey, stuffing or whatever you might be fortunate to have served. Perhaps talking to your table mates face-to-face might be more effective and leaving the tweets for later. In doing so, you’ll see how some conversations work at a distance, some work face-to-face and some will occur with people who have no idea that you can do both.
These are great days for social media. Blogs are becoming popular and tools like Google Reader and other RSS aggregators are making it easier than ever to follow blogs and other new sources with little effort. Twitter enables us to find, follow, share and distribute ideas to the world from almost any platform. Combine tools available through mobile video and uploading capability on everything from Blackberries to iPhones to iPods to regular digital cameras and you have a panoply of opinions that are being transmitted to places like YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook at a rate that boggles the mind.
If you’re like me, you probably get a lot of value from social media. I don’t think I could be effective in my job if I didn’t have tools like Twitter and Google Reader at my disposal. And that says something considering I am an academic at a leading research university that has access to many of the best databases in the world.
This past week I delivered* a webinar presentation* to a group of health promotion professionals working in tobacco control. Over the span of two hours I introduced the audience* to a variety of social media tools and platforms and how they could be used to leverage the power of their constituents and their teams of colleagues for public health benefit. Along the way I was able to poll the audience and the results were pretty much what I expected: most had some familiarity with social media, but few had dived in and were creating content or using it anywhere near its potential. I suppose if they were, they wouldn’t have been on the call*. In a week we’ll have the results of the follow-up survey and (if I did my job) these numbers will shift somewhat, but not explode. In some ways, this might be a very good thing because social media could well be a case where we might want to be careful what we wish for.
Why? Right now we have more information than we can cope with (although NYU professor Clay Shirky would argue, and I mostly agree with, that our problems are more about poor filtering than too much information, which we’ve had ever since we crossed that point when there became more media sources than time to read / consume them all in a lifetime). David Weinberger argues that all information is now miscellaneous, meaning that the need for organizing information is no longer relevant because we have the tools to search-as-we-go and no longer have to sort things into piles and categories the same way we once did. To him, the problem posed by information volume is largely minor.
Both the filtering and categorizing strategies for making sense of information and generating new knowledge from social media are based on our present and past experience where very few of us actually create an substantive content in an area. But what happens if, to borrow from Clay Shirky’s recent book title, we see: here comes everybody!? It is possible that once the oldest, non-Internet-using generation passes on that we’ll have somewhere close to 100%** digital network penetration in Western societies and a continued rapid rise in developing nations. (** knowing full well that there are people who will, as now, never wish to or maybe need to adopt new technologies and will resist or deny their adoption. The ‘true’ rate will likely be closer to 90-95% as we saw with landline phones or TV’s when they were at their peak).
Right now, social media use is sitting in a place where most people are NOT engaging in it in any meaningful way way generates value for others. Perhaps they are posting a comment on a website, or maybe joining a Ning community, but otherwise the occasional Facebook update coupled with watching cats play the piano on YouTube is about all they do. They represent the ‘lurkers’ on a site; people who’s value to a community or tool is derived not by what they generate in terms of content, but by providing an audience for taking that content and applying it to other things. What happens when the cultural norms shift, they’re literacy levels increase and, for example, they start blogging seriously (even if the content isn’t “serious”) or Twittering or posting their own videos of cats playing the piano on a video-sharing site using their handheld device? Questions abound about whether we can handle the information or whether the unleashing of creative energy on such a level will create a new Renaissance in human creativity.
Internet innovator and “pioneer” of virtual reality, Jared Lanier, feels somewhat differently from either of those positions, but certain argues that a Renaissance is not forthcoming. Jared recently published a book that advances a hypothesis that social media is making us less social, coherent as a society and quite possibly destructive to creativity and innovation rather than supporting it. In a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes:
Mr. Lanier calls his book a manifesto, but it reads more like a collection of columns and notebook entries loosely organized around a central theme. More than anything else, he worries that those whom he calls “the lords of the cloud”—huge entities such as Google and Facebook—constrict their users, creating online environments in which true individuality is curtailed in favor of the extraction of marketing data and other intelligence. The practice is not only unfair and confining, he says, but perhaps even dangerous. “Emphasizing the crowd,” Mr. Lanier writes, “means de-emphasizing individual humans . . . and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors.” At the very least current Web arrangements encourage a shallow, lemming-like conformity of judgment.
Lanier makes some provocative points (I will admit to having not read his manifesto yet, just some columns on these ideas). Our social media structure right now works quite well because the numbers associated with the expression of Pareto’s Principle (or Power Law — which, in social media terms means that a lot of content is generated by a few, while this long tail represents the bulk of the rest of the transactions. Think: ‘the 80-20 rule’).What is interesting to consider is what happens when the truly big shift comes into social media through ubiquitious Internet, GPS, geotagging, mobile video and such.
Will we consume as we have? Will we need low information diets? Will we develop better filters? And is it even possible to create coherence from all of this or will chaos reign? And how might the science of systems and complexity help us anticipate this future and prepare us to adapt to an information landscape that is far larger than we have now?
Some food for thought. More on this to come…
* what do you call these things in the context of a webinar, where conference call meets virtual lecture + slide show? I never have been able to get the language right for this. At least, in a manner that I feel comfortable with.