Categories: Media issues

24 July 2009


Are the “social media” really “social” or “media”?

I’ve just been out rowing on Zurich lake. It’s a good place to muse. You can’t share my blisters but I hope you’ll share my water-borne (and not water-logged) thoughts on whether the ultra-modern “social” media really are all that different to poor old “mass” media.

The word media was traditionally used to describe communication vehicles that had mass reach in the sense of one-reaching-many. Hence, the telephone as a medium of communication was never considered to be a part of the media [see my comments on PR Conversations here]. Conversations on telephones traditionally were one-to-one, or at best one-to-few on conference calls. (Oh, yeah right, let’s leave the UK gutter press hackers out of this for a moment.)

The word “social” in “social media” was coined to distinguish it from the mass media. It highlighted the ability of digital technology to enable direct – disintermediated – and interactive networked communication.

It was meant to capture all kinds of more or less micro-communications whose essence was that they were peer-to-peer.

Things got complicated because “social” media are not just “narrow-casting”. They might be micro, but they had also to be two-way. They were essentially interactive. But they were also essentially about networks: they were clubs.

My sticking point is that I don’t think this was all that new. I see why the new media were called “social”, but I think the old media were highly sociable.

And I think my most serious objection to social media hype is the old elitist one. I love gossip and I am often thrilled by crowds. But “crap in, crap out” is as true of conversations (whether between two individual or crowds of peers), as it is of computer models: remember how the Club of Rome’s computer predictions once panicked the world? Lots of people saying a thing, and lots more agreeing with them, is no guarantee that there is any merit to what’s said. I am thrilled that people have “voice” (and even “agency”). The next step is to get them to love wisdom.

The old media were social
The traditional media – in the mass sense – were always about building relationships with audiences; that’s what sustained them. I maintain that old media were always highly sociable. They spoke to a fan base. They reinforced the prejudices of their demographic. They stoked their appeal to their audience. In short they chased their market. I imagine that they tested their market, but in a way they didn’t have to. Their market tested them. Oh, and many of them worked hard at earning trust, often by proving themselves brave, truthful and intelligent.

Yes, they were intermediated, but they were interactive.

Take TV. It envisaged itself as the nation’s hearth. It knew it had to generate “water-cooler” shows. It saw its role as providing social glue; a role Walter Leland Cronkite played for most of his 92 years as the world’s leading TV newscaster. If it didn’t generate conversation, TV was dead.

Take radio. For decades it pioneered interactivity because phone-ins were cheap.

Take the press. Many were owned by campaigners and political parties. Plenty more connected with and mobilized millions of people on behalf of a variety of causes.

The mass media got to be massive because it was personal. It was social because at all sorts of levels (from family to nation, via interest groups and societies) it connected its users to their peers.

Social media aren’t always media or social
The web allows all sorts of communications which don’t really deserve to be tagged as “media”, social or otherwise. They are too like phone calls or rooming-house notice boards for that. They don’t aim to reach out beyond the immediate very small number of people they link. I’d say that lots of Facebook communication is of this inward-looking sort.

You may say that Twitter blows this argument out of the water (lake or not). But I think it reinforces it. Yes, Twitter is a super-SMS, and thus a bit like phoning. But its point is that it offers conversations which are designed to be overheard. It takes SMS messages and makes them public. That’s super, but it is also too like the “old” business of blogging to be quite as intimately peer-based or as distinctively sociable (its viral nature is not personal at all) as it might perhaps like to appear.

My point is that very often “social” media look very like narrow-casting or broadcasting (just like old-style blogs or websites or newspapers or TV or radio). But it also very often looks a super-phone call or private message board.

In these cases, and in practice, the wonders of interactivity and reflexivity offered by social media don’t really add up to all that much. And they are not very social either.

Truthfulness, wisdom and seriousness
Call me old-fashioned, but I think if something is to be called social, it ought to be good for society as well as just involve relationships between people.

I’m not a Luddite. However that has not stopped social media commentators such as Danny Brown accusing me of, “discounting one of the most valuable tools in business branding and promotion today.” But while he gets me wrong, I do love society becoming better educated and more discriminating. I don’t think the web is undoing that general trend. But I do think that we should think of “social media” as a technology with power for good or ill and that we need to keep on its case.

As Andrew Keen points out in The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, don’t underestimate the importance and value of professionalism.

Twitter might seem to contradict Keen’s pessimism by demonstrating that quality can thrive on so-called social media platforms.

But hang on. Twitter encourages mass followings and debate, gathered as followers and following around brands (and here brands can be personal as well as corporate), and interestingly so when it aggregates searchable content in the stream. I don’t dispute Twitter’s power. But at its most powerful it remains very like building old-style fan-bases. It does nothing to validate the merit of the enthusiasms it can generate.

Clay Shirky seemed not to spot this when he asserted here comes everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations on the real-time web. Though he seems to be weakening as the reality of “everybody” dawns on him. Following a deluge of unmanageable content on the real-time web, much of which is irrelevant and nonsense, he’s become a fan of Greylisting, which – if used to its potential – excludes nearly everybody who does not matter much or at all (most of us).

So he has started advocating in a positive way the need for filtering the stream. Clay and Keen agree about this, but Keen thinks it should be done by humans not machines. Keen promotes the example of how Middle-Eastern news network Al Jazeera, curates tweets, and present an edited and logical flow to their viewers and readers. It seems that the disintermediated world needs mediating after all. And, as I bobbed up and down in my rowing boat on Zurich lake, it made me remember the wise words of Walter Lippmann describing what function the media (as in mass and professional) serves:

I argue that representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who make the decisions. I attempt, therefore to argue that the serious acceptance of the principle that personal representation must be supplemented by representation of the unseen facts would alone permit a satisfactory decentralization, and allow us to escape the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs. It is argued [by Lippmann] that the problem of the press is confused because the critics and the apologists expect the press to realize this fiction, expect it to make up for all that was not foreseen in the theory of democracy, and that the readers expect this miracle to be performed at not cost or trouble to themselves. [Public Opinion PN Publishing 2007, first edition 1921]

So, contrary to the likes of Clay Shirky, the power of mediated thought and making sense of the world does not lie in the crowd: also see Jeff Jarvis’s What would Google do? where he gets over-excited by the always understood “insight” that marketing is based on building relationships and that networks matter.

Jarvis’s mistake is to advise companies that they’ve lost control so go with the flow, partly by ditching their PR, by relating to their customers in an unmediated fashion. It misses the point that companies never really had control [remember New Coke?] over much; it is just that the internet makes that fact more transparent. Hence, I say that mediation is needed more than ever – to keep what control one has over messages, narratives and brands – when everybody can publish their wares and views on line. Organizational structures are not dead but more vital than ever. And so is PR.

When it comes to the future of the media, I increasingly favour Charlie Beckett’s analysis in Supermedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World that media institutions are being transformed towards creating social networks of news. In his view, the mass in media lives and like all living organisms it adapts. It is my view that is why social media as a meaningful term is doomed.

I think what is happening is this: social media will go its merry way, not really deserving the term. The intermediated media will continue to live with it and even deploy it to its own ends. The sensible public will continue to seek quality-assured material and know that mass-acclaim doesn’t guarantee it. The mass media will stay as it is: a series of niches.

So, I was dismayed to hear reports quoting Richard Edelman saying recently that the mass is dead and the future is public engagement. If that is so public relations is dead as Jarvis says, because the word public relates to the people as a whole. Hang on a moment, says I, let’s have a reality check all round.

4 responses to “Are the “social media” really “social” or “media”?”

  1. Howard Greenstein says:

    I’ll point out a gramatical error here – it was Keen, and not Shirky who described the Al Jazeera twitter workflow in the videos you linked to on Supernova, so when you describe that, the pronoun “he” should refer to Keen, but Shirky is the most recent person mentioned.

    That said, you seem to devalue the “Graylisting” concept – I support the concept for social news – in that, I’d rather watch a funny video if most of my friends though it was funny, but not drown in all the jokes everyone randomly posts in my news stream.
    I understand the value of serendipity as well as the value of being exposed to multiple news sources – however, my friends are already a filter for me – they tend to surface more interesting stuff than I do on my own. Is that graylisting or just the way it has always happened – to reference your piece – when someone pointed me to a useful tv show or magazine.

    I’m heard your argument around social media – yes, media has always been social. End of story. People needed something to call the new services and products they were using, and as I’ve said to Steve Rubel, when you find a better name than “social media” please share it with everyone, and tell them to share it, and so on.

    — Howard Greenstein

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Howard, thanks for the correction. I have altered the text accordingly. For the record, I’ve nothing against filtering by machine or humans or both – I’m an advocate. But I would like to see Graylisting in action before saying it really works. The better term is media.

  3. David Phillips says:

    Paul, I have little to add suffice to say that it is my belief that the evolution of internet mediated relationships will be driven much more by human preference as time goes by. There will be an ever increaseing need to understand mediation in all its forms.

    The internet is very Darwinian now. People and corporations develop the means by which humans can do what humans do. They are, en-mass, inquisitive; they seek the ability to extend their physiology, they seek (depend on) the company of others and they are adaptable.

    We all mediate what we will do and accept. Does everyone need FriendFeed or Twitter? No. We mediate even the technologies we want to use and are actors in the internet evolution.

    The ability for so many to add so much so fast (Yochai Benkler expresses it well) will mean change will come about at an accelerating pace. We do not have to accept it all. Some will accept some things others something completely different.

    All this will mean that those of us who have a professional interest in relationships in a commercial context have our work cut out.

    It also means that we have to be pluralist in our endeavours.

    Shirkey made a point. Perhaps a trifle over the top and from the perspective of his own extrapolated experience.

    Mediation is something we have to consider and is why I teach net-neutrality as part of online public relations.

    Even my computer is set up to catch spam and malicious code – who is to say that it is spam? For some its an opportunity – just not mine at the time.

    Heady stuff for PR’s I think.

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