…I said, shooting myself in the foot. Though, not technically accurate, the phrase “Social Media” as we use it today, is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless. How did I reach this conclusion? Well, for starters, all media is by definition social, according to the oxford English dictionary anyway, which defines a medium as “a means by which something is expressed, communicated, or achieved.” So, unless one is communicating only to him or herself, all media is then intrinsically social.
And then we have to acknowledge the fact that all social interaction takes place via a medium of some sort. That is, unless you can provide me with an example to the contrary. Thus, “Social Media” becomes a term that doesn’t actually refer to anything but some sort of self-defining, circular, concept we’ve all agreed it refers to, possibly out of a collective laziness or lack of effort to actually identify and define the novelty we aim to discuss. The phrase insinuated itself into industry jargon because it was convenient and has since found its way into pop culture zeitgeist nomenclature, despite not actually meaning anything.
The thing is – social media isn’t new. When prehistoric man painted pictures of spears and buffalo on cave walls – guess what, that was social media. When town criers would shout news from atop pedestals in the marketplaces of ancient Rome that too could easily be referred to as social media.
We use the term to differentiate the dissemination of content on blogs and networking platforms from traditional outlets where information was conveyed in a more unidirectional manner. But even newspapers, TV, and radio are all social media.
What’s real and new (and what we’re all fascinated with) isn’t the vehicle itself, but how the medium allows us to alter that content as it’s shared. Every time a single datum changes hands, every time I pass on a link, or an article, or anything else, I’m imparting my own personal flavor & commentary.
To be fair, this isn’t really novel either. When a journalist tells us a story, he/she inevitably contributes a style and/or an implicit opinion (no matter how hard they may try not to). Traditional reporting is still social, regardless of how outdated it may seem to be – one party is relaying substance to another party – newscasters, radio hosts, reporters – they aren’t talking to themselves. Whether you like it or not, all media – from blogging to storytelling to skywriting – is qualitatively social.
What we are actually enamored with when we reference ‘social media’ is the quantitative aspect – the degree of socialness – not the social nature itself, as well as the subsequent reach and additional impact made possible by, and predicated upon, the repeated context-specific deconstruction and reconstruction of a given message.
Due to the fact that these platforms & emerging tools, those we’ve dubbed “social media,” or that which falls under the auspices of the “social web,” allow content to be propagated from one person to the next and between people at such an extreme rate, that the subject matter becomes malleable – living, breathing, evolving – taking on new meanings and relevancies as a result of the emotions and experiences of the person transmitting it and the context in which it’s being transmitted. Traditional media, while still retaining social properties, limits the amount of plasticity, as the route from source to reader is such a short and direct one.
So I hereby propose we stop using the term social media (though, we can still discuss social networks, platforms, or vehicles), and start referring to living, breathing, evolving dynamic media, because that’s what it is.
When we talk about the virality or memetic qualities of a video – whether organic or a component of a PR or marketing campaign – the ripple effect that we aim to recreate isn’t one of simple social transmission. I don’t want someone to just see a video and send it to a friend who sends it to a friend, et al. Superficially, that sequence of events may appear to be an effective means of increasing reach, but every time I retweet an article or show a friend a funny video, or post a product review or campaign analysis on my blog, I’m not just restating existing content – I am reconstructing it, which is so much more impactful than simple reiteration. Furthering its spread, yes, but irrevocably altering it in the process, and thus making it my own. And when I, or more importantly, when consumers can claim partial ownership of content – such materials become more influential over behaviors, both social and commercial
We – marketers, publicists, ad execs, media producers, digital strategists, think – how can we add value to conversations, how can we create content that people want to share – good questions, but not the most potent one, as those focus on the social nature, not the living, dynamic nature. The key is to provide users, consumers, with inherently moldable content, subject matter that can exist on its own – that has innate appeal – yet is receptive to reshaping and reinterpretation, along with the tools to do so, so that consumers can take branded content and create something personally meaningful from it.
This brings us back to the Tabula Rasa approach. Provide a branded but blank canvas for consumers to express their pent up creativity – only not. At this point, that tactic, though tried and true, is worn and destined for obsolesce, lest it be revived vis-à-vis dynamic media. Some might suggest that the masses have desensitized to the blank slate. I would argue that the “waiting canvas” concept affords the public too much freedom and choice, making it less appealing, in the same way that children think they want freedom, but unknowingly crave discipline and direction.
While persons are driven and intelligent, people are lazy and stupid, (Hat Tip – Men In Black) and that entails a very precise paradigm for the successful employment of dynamic media for branded or commercial ends. Namely, people don’t want to create content from scratch. We live in the heart of remix culture. Intrinsically valuable materials need to be provided to consumers, accompanied by both the means to impart a personal, individualized meaning – the added value, be it emotional, contextual, cultural, or otherwise – and the tools to easily share their product. But keep in mind, while they may cherish their creation, consumers are producers too, and when they propagate such a construct, one parented by the individual in tandem with the brand, the consumer is aware of, and expecting, the next person in the chain to impart his or her own contextual significance onto the borne product.
Yes, this is SOCIAL but so what? The opportunity for brands, and with it our focus, lies within exploiting the dynamic quality of such content. The mere fact that this content evolution it might happen through social transmission is interesting and yes, does lend the social realm reason for analysis and investigation, but it is only a means to an asymptotic end.
One corollary of all this would be the discussion of what is classically associated with Word-of-Mouth marketing and the attempt to generate (the over-and often-misused metaphor) viral content (memes) and the accompanying image of a wave as ripples through still waters. But that analogy is only representative of the dissemination of static content, not living, breathing, evolving entities.
Whether we look at viruses, as they infect cells and replicate, using their host’s own mechanisms as it’s means of proliferation, or the outermost waves of a ripple in a pond – we are observing the conception of clones – the replication of identical entities – even if the potential growth and reach of such replication is now exponentially greater (as it is with social networks and outlets). In its place, I suggest we think of dynamic media marketing as a game of telephone. Brands must prepare for and embrace the idea that it’s initial narrative will get distorted and refashioned at every stop along the way. Instead of trying to control the final outcome by carefully & strategically crafting that first idea – one designed to affect the end product – the ideas and messaging should be devised, from the outset, to welcome that loss of control. Because the truth is, control is something brands never really had to begin with.
In the same way that misdirected efforts, those overly centered around a specific platform like Facebook or Twitter instead of the underlying message or behavior, will face transmedia obstacles, so long as brands and those representing them continue to focus on the “social” facet of emerging media, their attempts at capitalizing on all that the digital space has to offer will be limited, if not hampered entirely, by overemphasizing and over-attending the wrong element.
This is not so say that there isn’t a place for the term “social.” I’ve already mentioned the platforms & vehicles, the “media” designed for the most basic and fundamental of social behaviors, namely, simple communication, conversation, dialogue, the exchange of information between 2 or more parties.
But the real opportunity for brands and producers is to do one of two things:
- Blur the lines between offline & online behaviors by creating a virtual or digital counterpart for a real life process (and vice versa) to the point where no such boundary exists.
- Alternatively, take a traditionally personal or individual behavior and impose an artificial progression that would effectively socialize the behavior.
Couple these precepts for the most intensive approach – taking an analogue, private activity and creating – then owning – it’s online, social counterpart.
For example, if networking, conversation, and information exchange are the basis for the existence and employment of social networking sites, then, social gaming would be one example of a successful branded enterprise in which a behavior was effectively transitioned into this space. Presently, in the throes of the holiday season, we’re seeing brands attempt to recreate traditional shopping experiences with social e-commerce parallels.
This approach is in direct contrast to those that seek to leverage or exploit preexisting behaviors, such as Facebook applications and campaigns that capitalize on users’ affinity for posting pictures and videos to social networks. It’s easy to analyze Facebook data and discern common behaviors across users in a target demographic. It’s much more difficult and innovative, however, to identify behaviors that have become outdated and abandoned, or with which we have become complacent, with the potential for social, digital reincarnation. As a result, such innovation carries with it greater weight and promise for the coveted return on investment.
One last thought. I’m not actually trying to convince you that social media doesn’t exist. I’m simply attempting to separate two discrete concepts (and opportunities) that we’ve lumped together under one label that doesn’t do them justice. If we do want to focus on the platforms’ socially enabling features as a vehicle that allows for the evolution of media and content – that would be amazing. But the tools to study this field transcend analysis of Facebook and Twitter and trendspotting platform-specific behaviors and desires. That analysis is necessary of course (I’ve dedicated many hours to it, in fact) but that really requires a manufactured evolution of consumer behaviorism to adopt and incorporate technological innovation and social psychology – confirmation bias, attribution bias, labeling effect, self-fulfilling prophesies etc. People behave (read: shop, interact with brands…) differently when alone than when in groups. Every action is different, whether on or offline. Understanding how people act in social situation is KEY for marketing in general and is not limited to digital media.
I’m not trying to undervalue the “socialness” the brand’s need to grasp. 2-way, Brand-Consumer conversations are imperative at this point as the masses are increasingly demanding this form of engagement. I’m only trying to point out that from a marketing standpoint, assuaging that need for brands to be social and create social opportunities is different from strategic planning and planting content that is designed to be dynamic and ever-evolving. That part goes hand-in-hand with brands coming to terms with the fact that they never had control of their brand identity – a systemic flaw in most messaging that is exacerbated by the exponential rate at which a given message, and with it, objectives, mutate.
The applications of dynamic media are as limitless as social. We just need to remind ourselves that there are two independent (however intertwined or overlapping) phenomena that require our attention.
Thank you for reading my tirade, I’ll try to keep my future posts to 140 characters or less. And please, feel free to disagree with everything I’ve just said – that’s how we learn!