Social Media Goes Mainstream

While some will dispute what mainstream is defined as exactly — with my own personal favorite being when my grandparents and their grandchildren both are doing whatever is under discussion — the rise of consumer-powered media platforms has all the hallmarks of being something that’s not only here to stay, but something that’s increasingly pushing everything else off the stage.  Yes, I’m talking about blogs, but also wikis and every other kind of two-way, user controlled participation tool that is currently proliferating on the Internet in every country and almost all demographics.

Now before I present my case for the mainstreaming of shared, collaborative media, we should more carefully define the term that captures this best: social media.  Wikipedia of course has the most easily accessible definition of social media, describing it as “online tools and platforms that people use to share opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives with each other. Social media can take many different forms, including text, images, audio, and video. Popular social mediums include blogs, message boards, podcasts, wikis, and vlogs.”  The key here is that people are the ones that use and control these tools and platforms instead of organizations and large institutions.  Further, I would add to this that social media platforms tend to work best in networked environments , particularly on the Web, but also behind firewalls though to a lesser degree.  Why is the networked aspect so important?  Primarily because it’s a powerful democratizing force due to its pervasive, low cost nature; anyone can get in the conversation with only a small investment of their personal time and access to a network.  And since communication is essentially free over computer networks today, combining an architecture of participation powered by network effects makes social media platforms almost certainly the most powerful form of media yet created.

These todays anyone posting anything on a simple blog lets them automatically reach the 1.1 billion users on the Web today.  And with syndication, social media content is picked up and spread throughout Internet via feed engines and the entire syndication ecosystem and can be found by anyone looking for information via TechnoratiGoogle Blog SearchTechMeme or dozens of other innovative discovery mechanisms. At long last, hundreds of years after the invention of the printig press, anyone can truly reach a global audience by spending a couple of minutes of their time creating a blog on one of the hundreds of free blog sites.  I’ve highlighted in the past how social media has been used in both emergent and deliberate fashion to do everything from locating the survivors of natural disasters to motivating end-users en masse to create online video advertisements for a major corporation.

Of course, any effective technique or phenomenon has those who attempt to co-opt it or copy it, the latter which is the most sincerest form of flattery.  The recent Public Relations 2.0 flap, which ostensibly boiled down to whether or not traditional organizations can even conceive of how these new freeform platforms work, was a good example of how institutions firmly grounded in the 20th century struggle to understand the power shift under way.  Because these platforms are no longer under anyone’s control for the very reason that the Web is a system without an owner, except all of us together.

Bounding the Social Media phenomenon 

But how significant is this really?  What are the compelling datapoints that tell use that social media is changing the landscape of communication, collaboration, and personal interaction?  David Sifry’s quarterly State of the Blogosphere, most recently updated in October, is an excellent place to start. Taking a look at this, we can tracking over 57 million blogs, with over 900,000 blog posts a day on just about any conceivable subject.  3 million new non-spam blogs were created in just the most recent 3 months of tracking.  But blogs are primarily text and there are many other forms of social media and so it’s worth looking at podcasting and video, two important types of social media that are growing rapidly with the spread of high quality, fast Internet connections.  Fortunately or unfortunately, unlike blogs, podcasts or video sharing do not have their own syndication system and for the most part they just ride inside the existing RSS/ATOM feed systems.  This makes it hard to discern what is really happening and so we can only pull on some individual data points such as Google Trends data showing the rapid rise of podcasting as a search term.

The video side of social media is a bit easier, which Hitwise and YouTube providing enough hard data on the most recent version of the YouTube Fact Sheet to get a general though unscientific impression of what’s happening there.  According to this, YouTube has 60% of all online video viewers with up to 70 million viewers in an evening and over 65,000 videos uploaded every day, making it both the #1 online video site and #1 social video sharing site online.  This implies that most video consumption on the Web is already based on social media, and that there are over 115 million online viewers of video overall.  At least for video, social media is not an edge case and is they dominant model overall. Note: Yes, one can quibble about whether YouTube is truly a social media site and certainly it skirts the concept but in my book it makes the list. 

Why is YouTube considered Social Media though?  What aspects does it — any many of the most successful media sites — have that make it social and non-coincidentally so popular?  To understand this best, it’s worth creating a list of what exactly must an aspiring social media platform actually have in order to be considered such.  Here is my take, culling the capabilities and features of the most popular social media sites as well as the consensus of leading thinkiners in this space such as Stowe Boyd, Tina Sharkey, and others.

Defining Social Media: Some Ground Rules
(as we understand them circa January 2007)

  1. Communication in the form of conversation, not monologue.  This implies that social media must facilitate two-way discussion, discourse, and debate with little or no moderation or censorship.  In other words, the increasingly ubiquitious comments section of your local blog or media sharing site is NOT optional and must be open to everyone.
  2. Participants in social media are people, not organizations.  Third-person voice is discouraged and the source of ideas and participation is clearly identified and associated with the individuals that contributed them.  Anonymity is also discouraged but permissible in some very limited situations.
  3. Honesty and transparency are core values.  Spin and attempting to control, manipulate, or even spam the conversation are thoroughly discouraged.  Social media is an often painfully candid forum and traditional organizations — which aren’t part of the conversation other than through their people — will often have a hard time adjusting to this.
  4. It’s all about pull, not push.  Like John Hagel and John Seely Brown observed in the McKinsey Quarterly a year ago or so, push-based systems, of which one-way marketing and advertising and command-and-control management are typical examples are nowhere near as efficient as pull systems.  Pull systems let people bring to them the content and relationships that they want, instead of having it forced upon them by an external entity.  Far from being a management theory, much of what we see in Web 2.0 shows the power of pull-based systems with extremely large audiences.  As you shape a social media community, understanding how to make embrace pull instead of push is one of the core techniques.  In social media, people are in control of their conversations, not the pushers.
  5. Distribution instead of centralization.  One often overlooked aspect of social media is the fact that the interlocutors are so many and varied.  Gone are the biases that inevitably creep into information when only a few organizations control the creation and distribution of information.  Social media is highly distributed and made up of tens of millions of voices making it far more textured, rich, and heterogeneous than old media could ever be (or want to be).  Encouraging conversations on the vast edges of our networks, rather than in the middle, is what this point is all about.

The rise of social media platforms within businesses, often dubbed Enterprise 2.0 , will place a significant challenge on organizations as they try to grapple with the ground rules above.  That’s because not following them will tend to reduce the long-term success and effectiveness of social media in business.  Also, increasingly, as more and more time and world-wide attention is given to social media, who really owns the discussions online will become a bigger and bigger deal.  YouTube recently announced they will begin paying their users for their video contributions (which are the seeds for often virulent conversation on that site), but they still place far too many restrictions on the content that is uploaded including making it belong to YouTube.

 Both of these trends show that when users are in control via the highly democratizing tools of the Web, the fundamental ground rules change.  Understand them, follow them, and embrace them, this is the pre-eminent media model for the 21st century.

These aren’t the only rules for social software however, just social media in particular.  Be sure to check out my Notes on Making Good Social Software for more good ideas.

What else did I miss? What makes social media uniquely what it is? 

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