That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think it Means [Social Media]

Last month, I made a switch to include social media under the umbrella of digital instead of as its own category. With a little bit of research and help from Princess Bride, I explain why over at Edelman Digital.

I believe that the baseline of users sees “social media” and gets distracted by the social part. That conclusion translates into treating these types of publishing in interpersonal ways, thinking that what we create is a one-to-one or one-to-small-group manner. What is actually happening is that what we are constructing a personal broadcast based on what we choose to publish around our social contacts. We are building media by being social and not the other way around.

Some fun with nomenclature and research never hurt anyone, so read the whole thing here.

Social Media Maxims

I nearly typed a shorter version of the below into a network-wide e-mail, but left it out because it was a little *too* theoretical. Then again, that’s why I utilize multiple forms of expression.

The core of social media isn’t the media, it’s the social.

It’s the old tree-falling-alone-in-the-woods conundrum. Look, everyone is cutting down trees these days, but our fundamental tools haven’t changed. You still need to use an axe, it’s just the fact that social media gives one to all of us. Regardless, it still only makes a difference if someone is around to hear that tree fall and respond to your tree cutting ways.

The Firehose

(CC) Flickr User Neil B.

Attention span is an interesting variable, everywhere from Kindergarten classrooms to the corner office. In it, though, may lie the roots of the digital shift in news media.

There is a common metaphor used to describe the overload of news that many face, caused by newer forms of information retrieval. You can’t drink from the firehose (no matter what Michael Richards said in UHF), which means that at some point, if you try to handle all of the media you are trying to consume – via the quest for realtime search, your 1,500 Twitter friends, or your scores of RSS feeds – you will miss something, even if you had intention of looking for it.

The metaphor I’ve been using recently is that Twitter is like a whiteboard. It’s not a posting place for solid reminders: it’s an easily erased, ever-changing form of information that has new information up there every second. This lack of permanency has its place in reporting and breaking news, but not in telling the whole story and certainly not in lasting impressions and legitimate news sharing.

Where attention span fits into this is a chicken or egg moment. Do people flock to Twitter because they can rest at ease if the miss something? Or was Twitter the inevitability of the movement from a newspaper (a source of news with finite information, but developed a sincere time investment) to the television/radio broadcast (less amount of news, but still significant in terms of content, with lower time investment) to blogging and blogging’s cousins of RSS and Twitter? In the latter, the well of news is the deepest it has ever been, but there is no human amount of time or ability to consume it.

By developing our own content, we had options on what to do with our news reading time.

  • Option 1: Try and consume it all, anyway, and fail.
  • Option 2: Filter down to a few sources that are not connected, basically becoming our own editors. Personal bias creeps in here, and we start shrinking down to really few.
  • Option 3: Turn to a trusted, “third-party” editor, who isn’t associated with a central content developer, and see what they say to read. (This is the “I’ll read what the smart people read” model).

I have found, across the hundreds of sources I stumble upon – creeping up on thousands if you combine all my feeds and Twitter friends – that the last model is the most efficient way to get information. In my most honest moments, I’d like to think that I’m at least contributing to that for my own friends and followers and providing them information about what I follow closest, turning to them to pick up the other slack.

As it exists right now, that unbelievable majority of us are consumers, relying on the few who, even without access, are able to be sources of information. Media history called this two-step flow, but there are way too many steps in between than there used to be to think its simply two. The point remains the same, and, ultimately, this is the theoretical and actual root of social media. Even when it comes to news, we rely on our social connections before the institution, and we have for hundreds of years.

You can’t take a straw to the firehose, it’s an awful way to get anything to drink. However, the most useful source out there is the person who tells you where in the spray to stand to actually get something useful.

Please note, in the clip below, Michael Richards is not helping:

Newspapers as the Community Hub

There are some things that will newspapers will always be able to uniquely contribute when it comes to news and information. For a fascinating example, Steve Rubel pointed to a case at the American Statesman down in Austin last week, and it’s worth taking a close look not just because of the technology that Rubel is currently poster-childing.

Posterous is a cool idea when it comes to expanding what can be done with the current “its” of social media: lifestreaming and microblogging. Looking in part like a Tumblr blog, it’s controlled through a very low participation barrier. No registration – just e-mail what you want to say and it starts your very own stream. That’s it. There is plenty of customization you can do, but there’s no need. It wins on two of the levels that Twitter did – simplicity and universal access – and that’s probably why Steve has gravitated to it.

This post is not about Posterous, though, it’s about what the Statesman is doing with it. The paper is using the tool as a new way to continue what papers have been doing for hundreds of years:

…bring the local community together with unique content that relates to them and only them.

Robert Quigley, the social media editor of the paper, wrote on a site he co-authors with Daniel Honigman, Old Media New Tricks:

The results for us

We put the photos into a gallery on, and it was the top page-view driver for our site on Monday with more than 70,000 page views. We also gained some valuable experience using Posterous and proved the concept for future projects. We published the content we received several ways: Posterous, Twitter, in our photo gallery and in print. That type of cross-platform publishing is healthy.

The results for the community

The quality of the pictures were really good. Some were funny, some were artistic, and all were thoughtful. Through this project, Central Texans could all feel the pain of a hot summer and share a small slice of their lives.

I think Quigley missed out one other really important result for the newspaper: it makes its online home a personal destination that the community connects to. I think back to the own connection I feel with the Boston Globe’s sports section, which to a Red Sox fan *is* a personal bond, but more importantly, also the neighborhood weekly from the town I grew up in that used to highlight the youth soccer scores every week in the fall. Playing U8 soccer and seeing your name in the paper – it’s the little things – help build a connection to a pub.

There is a place for the local newspaper far beyond its advertising section, and some of that is irreplaceable through individual bloggers. The Statesman has recognized that they can become the community hub by providing a forum that is traffic driving, local, and, ironically, an aggregator of community content. In the same way that a small town relies on a reporter to get to the school board meetings, the online version can be the center of the spoke for related content.

I’m interested to see other ways newspapers toward in toward the community to help build content and reach, as opposed to blocks them out and holds relevant information hostage. Open projects like this generate traffic – a key measure for publishers to base on ad placements – and there may be other unique ways to build ads into the stream (perhaps some transparently sponsored posts that highlight local business?). Either way, it’s giving Austin residents a reason to go to the site beyond what they can get in the paper.

Where does social media fit in media history?

I’m sitting in the communications department here at Boston College, having just finished up my first foray as “Prof. Levy,” thanks to friend and mentor Ken Lachlan. As promised, here’s the presentation I gave this morning, entitled “Old Media’s Rules in a New Media World.”

The description I’m going with:

A collection of thoughts on where social media fits in the lineage of mass media history. As presented to Prof. Ken Lachlan’s Survey of Mass Communication class at Boston College on April 30, 2009

4 16 07

When I first visited the Newseum as it opened in the Spring of 2008, I was kind of surprised that, historically speaking, the most recent news item that was covered in the New Media arena was the tragic event that happened at Virginia Tech in April of 2007.

However, as I’ve thought about it more over the last two years, I think that this will be moment in mass media history on which the entire culture of participatory media can be explained. For anyone who doubts the ability of social media to drive a personal, citizen focused story, this event will be the thing to which many of the Digital Native generation will point.

It will be always a challenge for me to forget the horrific events of that day – even though I was nowhere near Blacksburg when it occurred. The reason? Because the story went far deeper than what the traditional mouthpieces of media reported. The dimension created by the immensely personal nature of on the scene videos and instant reactions ultimately changed the story – and media forever.

You see, by hearing from those voices directly – and first – it made the tragedy more than an insulated event at Virginia Tech. It made people on college campuses across the country (where I happened to be at the time I first heard) realize that the name of the school and academic building were incidental. For the first time, the channels my generation had been connecting on for a handful of years became where we also congregated as the collective zeitgeist of young people.

It was the first time Facebook profile pictures became platforms for advocacy, support as photos were flipped out for images like the one above and “Today, we are all Hokies.” Videos and tributes (like this one) weren’t reserved to only traditional news outlets.

There have been events in the past few months in which we have applauded how the culture of participatory media was able to spread a story. But, luckily, those were consumer-misguidings (like Motrin or Dominos) or averted disasters (Flight 1549). The personal emotion that came through two years ago will add to a story that we will never forget – and it will be the chapter one case study on what participatory media brings to the table.

The Irony of Social Media and Intellectual Property

Every now and then in this space, I love to play lawyer. It started with the AP/Shepard Fairey spat, and then I had some fun boiling down the Facebook ToS. There’s something about intellectual property that really turns my geek buttons, for some reason. Partially, I think it’s because I think the entire concept is hard to apply universally to online media. When it comes to the things I’ve studied/read about regarding traditional IP, it all just seems a little anachronistic.

Which brings me to an interesting post that I just stumbled across on ReadWriteWeb (and also posted on the Creative Commons blog).

I really like the idea of Creative Commons. When I see a blog with a CC license, what it says to me is, “What I’m writing isn’t necessarily for me to make money; but, hey, I put some time into it, let people know where you got the idea from.”

Why do I write here? I guess I write to throw some ideas out into the blogosphere and see what anyone else has to say. Generally, that’s the motive of most people (although not exclusively by any means) who write in a forum like this and would ever be concerned about where their content ends up.

Hell, if people can’t take what they want out of my content and then continue the conversation, how is it social media?

CC gives people the head’s up on a creator wants their content used, and I think that’s a great idea. I keep thinking about this in terms of Facebook’s gaffe a few weeks ago. The rally cries against Facebook started with the “content producers” who were worried that they couldn’t control it any longer. It wasn’t the run-of-the-mill user who was concerned – until they started hearing about it. When things are clear and communicated up front, it’s better.

I love the concept of CC’s new offering: CC Zero makes the process of waiving all pre-existing copyright guidelines easy. I’d go as far to even call it “Open Source Publishing.” Let’s see a newspaper do *that.*

All “beating a dead-tree-media when it’s down” aside, I think CC helps set the rules for social media. The irony is that I feel that “playing nice” should be the lay of the land. The reason that something in this vein is even required is because copyright law doesn’t have the right applications to online, crowd-generated content. For example, who has the right to the comment on my blog – the user or the facilitator? Someone else entirely?

The big assumption in all of this is that people write things online to be public (just like when you post something to Facebook, you assume that it is actually going out to your social connections). That’s a contradiction to most copywritten content since, in a traditional model, the person you pay for the service is involved in the process. You aren’t paying Google to read this. You’re paying (or someone is) a provider to access the series of tubes to access this site.

Communication law can’t adapt fast enough to changing technology, so, I don’t know when I’ll get my answer. The point is, though, it’s worth thinking about one point: when you create content online, you aren’t expecting it to be simply read. You’re expecting it to be passed along in any of what seems countless ways.

Creative Commons lets that be covered, for the time being. Maybe there will be a precedent that will require more or less of CC’s service. For now? I just want to let you know that I would be delighted for you to use my writing and my ideas. At some point, that’s what this is simply about.


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