Cafe Witness

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why Social Media Doesn't Matter (Yet)

I produce social media, both for fun (Something to Be Desired) and for a living. And I can say, even as one of the medium's biggest supporters, that it simply doesn't matter.


Why? Because we, with rare exception, are not producing media that matters.


Here's the paradox: given the financial, creative and time constraints imposed upon aspiring social media creators, most people do exactly what they've been told since their first writing lesson: write what you know.

This results in a rich tapestry of user-generated media about quirky content that small groups are passionate about. And yet, despite even the larger success stories, very few people are creating media that appeals to an audience outside the early-adopter tech / niche / geek fishbowl.

Why? Three reasons.

1. Who's Watching Me?

The largest audience for this kind of content IS the affluent, tech-obsessed population. This tends to exclude large segments of the populace by association. (Thus, why produce media for an audience that isn't there?)

2. Great Expectations

To produce something akin to "mainstream" media -- whether comedy, drama, news, education, etc. -- forces the potential audience to compare that independently-produced media with the slick, corporate-funded media presented to them every day, across multiple distribution platforms, for free.

This is not a comparison in which the average, pop culture-beholden consumer will find in favor of the indie, so why invest resources in attracting their attention in the first place?

Thus, based solely upon the two initial premises, the aspiring social media creator is faced with a choice: invest time and effort in becoming large WITHIN the fishbowl, and hope that niche appeal eventually translates to a scalable opportunity within the traditional corporate media structure...

... or, attempt to create something "populist" from the get-go, knowing that the odds of acceptance are diminished on both sides (from the culture AND the counter-culture, each of whom will see the creator as an half-compliant outsider).

3. No One (Including the Creators) Actually Cares

The other reason social media doesn't matter (yet) is because social media creators, with rare exception, fail to use the democratic potential of this medium to engage in MEANINGFUL conversation or incite ACTUAL change.

Take Alive in Baghdad. Everyone who's familiar with the series, who's watched a few episodes, or who knows creator Brian Conley personally, realizes that AiB is one of the landmark creations in social media's still-nascent history.

The premise of the series -- actual stories of Iraqi citizens, filmed by Iraqis and translated for the American (and world) public -- appeals directly to the "renegade" sensibilities of the social media culture. We all inherently recognize the risks Brian is taking and the potential for change that AiB provides. This makes Brian's tale the easiest to tell, the one that's most inspiring, and the comparison that's hardest to live up to.

It's also, apparently, almost impossible to sustain.


Because the social media audience (like the mainstream audience) doesn't want to involve itself in stories outside its own fishbowl. It doesn't want to tumble down the rabbit hole of world politics, or theology, or sociology. It doesn't want to risk taking actions that may be inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, if you post a Twitter about the new iPods, or mention an upcoming tech conference, or ask what people's favorite fonts are, you'll be overwhelmed with replies.

The fishbowl, it seems, is safe.

Will It Blend?

How do you reconcile:

* a medium built upon democratization,
* a culture steeped in consumerism, and
* a community comprised primarily of intelligent, independent and strongly opinionated -- yet ultimately insular, self-obsessed and apathetic -- individuals

with the possibility for this emerging medium to become relevant (and even catalytic) beyond its own borders?

I think those of us who've moved beyond the simple creation of social media and taken the time to foster its community need to ask ourselves a few questions:

* Why am I doing this?

* What constitutes "success" for me?

* What's IMPORTANT to me?

I fully expect that, for 90% of the social media population, the color choices among the new iPod Nanos ARE what's important to them. That's not their fault -- the fishbowl is a welcoming place, and their voices ring much louder within its walls than they would outside.

But, for the other 10% who can somehow sense that social media is capable of more than just generating record-setting Halo 3 sales numbers...

... or driving up demand for the iPhone...

... or defending the career of Britney Spears...

... surely there must be something more we can do?

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  • I think you're still enamored with "slick" MSM and Hollywood type fare, or assuming the public is.

    But Do It Yourself media and productions have been increasing in popularity ever since the Sex Pistols flew in the face of the Rock Star Syndrome and artists began using scrap metal and found objects.

    Slick, overproduced, super-hyped content is waning in appeal.

    People are flocking to the reality TV shows for a reason. They're sick of celebrity, contrivance, and hoopla.

    Sure, we still see Harry Potter and iPhone frenzies.

    But the MSM is in serious financial and audience decline and people are discovering that they are just as important and interesting as any of these flakey stars and celebrities who dance in front of mirrors when children, then complain of papparazi when famous.

    Much "amateur", low tech, lofi entertainment is popular and even successful in financial terms.

    Look at the 100% user generated content of Post Secret as a prime example.

    It took the public a while to understand and adapt the telephone, radio, TV, computer, etc.

    I think social media is in fine shape. Individuals are just now experimenting and finding their unique "voice" and video presentation.

    I feel more optimistic about this, but I like your viewpoints, too!

    By Blogger steven edward streight, at 10:49 AM  

  • Oh SNAP! Great points man, as usual. I've been saying a similar argument the past few months about Arizona. There are only a hand full or us here that interact among the "masses" but we're growing, slowly.

    By Anonymous Clintus McGintus, at 10:56 AM  

  • "Because we, with rare exception, are not producing media that matters."

    I disagree with this, I think social media with it's interactions is drastically affecting our culture. Sometimes it isn't necessarily the media that's created it's the social connections and friends that are created which are important.

    By Blogger BlackThir13en, at 10:58 AM  

  • I agree with Steven's comment.

    I think there is a much larger audience out there for web video than just the "affluent, tech-obsessed population" .

    The people who watch are a real cross section of America and the world. 70 yr olds who just got a computer, a mom who home schools her kids in Nebraska, a bread baker in Holland, a grandmother in South Africa.

    And then the Gardenfork audience learns about Real World Green,, the new show I produce, and I've gotten quite a few emails of how this web video show has caused everyday people to change their habits.

    So I see proof that web video is growing beyond techies.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:59 AM  

  • Welcome to reality, Justin - I hope that you brought a blanket, it gets cold.

    For a long time, I have been saying, or attempting to say, that the REAL market is in the 85% of the people who are NOT in our fishbowl.

    A quick reality check is this:

    Fishbowl: "Oh MySpace is great - you should join!"

    Reality: "I tried setting up a MySpace profile and I am having a hard time figuring it out, nor do I have any desire to spend hours sifting through that site. I just got home from work (where I do not use a computer) and now I am tired and really just want to sit around and not do much of anything. I have real friends who I talk with on the phone or who I see at least once a week. In short, I have a life which isn't centered around the internet and I could really care less about technology."

    By Anonymous Michael Bailey, at 10:59 AM  

  • Steven: Did you just say people watch reality TV because they're sick of the "contrivance and hoopla"? Perhaps we're not watching the same reality TV...

    If anything, reality TV 9and YouTube) succeed BECAUSE people want to BE celebrities -- or (be allowed by the MSM to think they) have the power to CREATE celebrities. Don't forget: these "popular" reality TV shows are still produced by the same major networks / corporations that once produced said slick media... The form may have changed, but not the function.

    13: The interactions we can have online now are great, sure. The way in which information is being exchanged IS changing, but the quality of the information being exchanged is dubious. Wake me up when you hear more furor over military action in Iran, or the Jena 6, than over the length of the line outside Electronics Boutique...

    Eric: Piping people from one successful show to another is a great, classic strategy. Unfortunately, not enough people are using their niche as a gateway to larger conversations... yet. Keep it up.

    Michael and Clintus: I'm not necessarily a naysayer, but I do question the reality of social media creators running in place while waiting for a fairy godmother to show them the way (to success OR relevance). If we have the sticks, we should be able to start a fire.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 11:13 AM  

  • Larger conversations?

    Oh come on now - you expect media to change basic human behavior?

    Walk up to a group of people in the street - there's one level of conversation.

    Have a party - there's another level.

    Sneak off with 2 or 3 people, there's a 3rd level of conversation.

    In general, people don't talk about things which they must publicly admit to being committed to, and when they do, they're chastised by the receiving group.

    Basic human interaction, and nothing is going to change that.

    By Anonymous Michael Bailey, at 12:08 PM  

  • All of our ventures would be successful if they were given the kind of promotional power a television show receives. None of us have the Mark Cuban $$$ or the contacts to get them written up week after week by the mainstream press. Nor the ability to draw some of the mainstream media stars into our properties (like Dancing with the Stars).

    If success is hinged on that sort of gratification, then it's alot easier to do when the message is pointed at 85% of the population.

    If you're looking for a relatively successful mainstream venture, take all your energy and put it into a real world product or service that people can't live without.

    Most information is precious when:
    - its' time of life (birth, death, taxes)
    - it's pop culture (Prez Hilton)
    - it's local to them (physically, virtually, or by family)

    Any successful podcast probably has 2 of those items covered.

    By Blogger Vergel Evans, at 1:45 PM  

  • I think we create the fishbowl we perceive.

    Pew Internet released a study over a year ago on bloggers -- 37% of bloggers wrote about "my life and experiences" versus only 4% being about "technology". See for the link and key takeaways.

    People are increasingly turning away from MSM to user-generated media. The overhang of people reading blogs versus writing that content is still 5-6x, implying the demand exceeds the supply.

    People do care! The problem is information overload. There are 1000x more pages on the Web than there are people, and the current primary filter for how everyone finds content on the Web is search, which indexes content by its attributes. How many times have you seen in your stats that someone came to your site due to Google search keywords that were pretty much irrelevant to who YOU are -- but you can still kinda see how the algorithm meagerly indexed your pages?

    We connect as people, not as content. If the people of the social web were indexed by THEIR attributes, that would allow us to better connect with each other as people, knowing that the content we produce is simply a manifestation of our personalities, experiences and behavioral attributes.

    Because at the end of the day, most of us don't have the intention of being a mainstream blog, we just want to reach others online whose thoughts and perspectives resonate with and challenge our own.

    By Anonymous Jordan Mitchell, at 1:10 PM  

  • We are so on the same page.

    I've been wrestling with your points in the "Will it blend?" section on and off for months. On one hand I want to see my writing on the big or small screen. On the other, I'm not willing to move to L.A. to suck up to the industry to make it happen. That leaves new media, which primarily people in the fishbowl watch.

    I've been pondering how the break out of the fishbowl. No "Ah-ha!" moment yet, unfortunately

    By Anonymous Nancy, at 3:14 PM  

  • By Anonymous Xavier, at 2:51 PM  

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