Tom Coates begins a presentation on social media by saying that he doesn’t know what the heck it is — is it social software, a subset of social software, or what? — but he then turns around, and does a pretty good job chasing it down:
[from What do we do with ‘social media’? (plasticbag.org) by Tom Coates]
It was the popular arrival of the web that started the shift towards thinking of the internet as a publishing medium, and it was propelled in part by large companies using their enormous resources to put huge swathes of content online. Interestingly, this move was the thing that pushed the internet over the tipping point - publishing is something that people understand and can engage with. So the popularisation of the internet is probably directly related to this one particular and relatively constrained subsection of what it’s most useful for.
The age of social media then is probably about a fusing of these two ways of thinking - the communicative and the publishing/creative parts of the internet - into something new and powerful. It’s an environment in which every user is potentially a creator, a publisher and a collaborator with (and to) all of the other creative people on the internet.
It seems to me that the other main feature of social media is that they’re looking at how each individual contribution can become part of something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and to feed that back to the individuals using the service so that - fundamentally - everyone gets back more than they’re putting in.
These new services are about creating frameworks and spaces, containers and supports that help users create and publish and use all kinds of data from the smallest comment to the best produced video clip which in aggregate create something of fascinating utility to all.
So social media then hasn’t really arrived as much as it’s always been there, waiting for the right set of circumstances to make it really blossom. These circumstances probably include boring things like web penetration, the new generation of users who have grown up with the internet, the widespread take-up of always-on broadband, standards-compliant browsers, a better understanding of addressability and links and search and more sophisticated approaches to handling media and interactions with the server.
And they’ve probably also been waiting for business models, which brings us back to the panel in question which is supposed to be about social media on the one hand and business models on the other. As I’ve said, social media is about helping individuals creating value for all.
And of course social media generates an enormous amount of content, and content is content and can act as a platform for advertising. Traditionally media organisations are suspicious about placing ads around what can often be ‘bad’ user-generated content, but then the question is surely just how you can help surface the good stuff - and the best way you can do that is to work with your community. On Flickr, great pictures are seen by enormously more people than small personal or bad pictures - they have a concept of interestingness that surfaces pictures every day that are of extraordinary quality. Blog posts on average are pretty terrible, but the best blog posts are as good or better than anything you’ll find in the mainstream press.
Tom clearly states the challenge for media organizations today confronted with the social media explosion, and the migration of people away from traditional media to this strange, brave new world. How to find the good stuff? How to integrate something like traditional advertising — which advertisers and all the other media intermediaries understand — into this swirling, amorphous hive of activity in the blogosphere?
When the formerly centralized publishing is exploded by the combination of new tech and disgruntled fringe lunatics, and publishing moves to the edge, isn’t the corresponding explosion of advertising soon to follow? Well, sorta.
The new central figures in this world are Google and the twenty or so other media monsters, at least at this juncture, because it is too hard for individual advertisers to pick the 100 best blogs to advertise their wares. In essence, Google ads serve as a simplification of the complex dynamics really going on.
But some new appreciation of great writing is already happening: blog networks and the emergence of stars — like Tom Coates — demonstrate the natural rhythms of social mediation are still at work. And even when the traditional bastions of journalism are firing people right and left, and the advertising industry seems intent on tearing itself apart instead of getting on with the transition that people out at the edge know is inevitable, people are picking good things to read, even when so much of what is written is junk.
That’s the joy of social media, and the threat to the establishment. It’s not in the hands of the media outlets, it’s an active process going on out here, at the grassroots. People write, other people read, comment, add their bit, link, people learn about the good stuff from others, and presto. New voices are heard, in a sort of a chorus, outside the control of the establishment. And now, new models of business are arising that will likely invalidate at least some of the key elements of the current advertising model.