The rise and fall of social media: a swift and familiar tale

The rise and fall of social media has been so swift and so familiar that the story of its rise and fall probably says more about us than it does about the tools themselves.

In the early days, social media seemed revolutionary and, at times, it was. Unfortunately, like all revolutionaries who win, social media has come to mirror the status quo it had initially challenged.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube (et al) now look, feel and act very much like the traditional media many of us were avoiding when we first joined these digital networks.

Advertising, of course, was a key player in the counterrevolution, but social media turned to advertising only because a profit had to be turned and it had to be turned quickly. Old and familiar habits die hard when they boost revenues and profits easily.

Meanwhile, as the masters of the social media universe learned to dance to the tune called by the advertisers, the users themselves (myself included) set about trying to monetize their activities on social media. Socializing for its own sake quickly (d)evolved into network marketing. Eventually, those of us who did not become viral millionaires parlayed our social media cred into paid positions. Others simply walked away from the tools. We all returned to our familiar folds, even as we shook our fists at the masters of the social media universe for doing the same.

The pure-of-heart revolutionary will likely sneer at the bourgeois sell-outs, but they can do so with a clear conscious only if they are not at all concerned about hypocrisy. The revolutionary is a network marketer with a different call-to-action.

Indeed, the revolutionary, the marketer, and the poet are of imagination all compact. Whenever they see a crowd, they imagine an army they can rally to their own cause — a cause that not-coincidentally puts bread on their table too. It’s what we humans seem to do whenever we are given half-a-chance. We always seem to want to turn the lead of our relationships into the gold of wealth and power. Perhaps, it is the natural inverse of the fact that our relationships have always been the surest path to survival, power and wealth.

Social media, it now seems to me, was one more stage upon which we could strut and fret our way through this familiar tale. From time-to-time in human history, the status quo is upset by some unexpected and novel circumstance like social media. In these times of uncertainty, some outsiders move in, some insiders are forced out, and, eventually, the new and novel is normalized, contained, and pacified. As the dust settles, a new status quo consolidates and the longing for the next revolution begins.

With the benefit of hindsight, I suppose, the only remarkable thing is that I (and, perhaps, others) are surprised by this inevitable outcome. Like Charlie Brown, lying flat on his back staring at the sky, we are dumbfounded that we are on our backs again and, at the same time, incredulous that we fooled ourselves once more into believing for one glorious moment that it might end differently this time.

And it is true, if we look only at the abstract narrative arc: we are trapped, like Charlie Brown, Sisyphus, and the pendulum, in a seemingly futile inevitability. The devil and salvation, however, are in the details. With each push of the rock, every missed football, and each swing of the pendulum, we change and, if we are lucky, we learn. Progress, like science, begins and ends with failure. We push, we race, and we swing not to win but to experience. The reward comes when we return to the rock, race once more towards the football, and swing again into the void hoping against hope — believing — that this time it will end differently, even when we know that it won’t. It is in that moment of hope that we seem to escape the inevitable physics of our humanity. Then, the weight of the rock turns against us, the football is missed, and the pendulum begins it inescapable return. Arc after arc, life after life, generation after generation until, if we are lucky, our descendants live and are different enough from us to look back on our efforts to tell a story of progress. We are trapped but it is not necessarily futile. The trap itself begets the idea of escape and with that hope anything is possible.

Avoid stony indifference: prime your audiences directly

When it comes to communications planning, organizations of every ilk seem to spend a lot of time fussing about messages, tactics and products.

Communication, however — the very thing we are hoping to facilitate with this planning — only happens between people who are already connected and attending to each other — giving and sharing their attention.

In other words, a well-crafted message is only a message if people are ready to receive it and understand it. Otherwise, it is one more tree falling noiselessly in a forest.

The need to prime an audience for a message or story is the central insight of effective media relations. The very best people working in media relations build and nurture relationships with reporters and editors, to ensure they are ready to hear a pitch when it is made. The relationship — not the press release, key message or holding line — usually makes and shapes the story.

However, the story, much like the well-crafted key message, is only a story if people are ready to receive and understand it.  

Today, all of your audiences are very much like reporters and editors. Thousands of people are clamouring for their attention every minute of every day. Thanks to social media, they also have the means to reach thousands of people any minute of any day.

However, the influencer’s social media post, like the reporter’s front page story and your well-crafted message, is meaningful only if people are ready to receive and understand it.  

Thinking again of the example of effective media relations, we know the relationship is the most important consideration when it comes to priming an audience for a message. Relationships, we also know, happen between people. They can, in some cases, be nurtured digitally but nothing will ever surpass the effectiveness of regular and face-to-face interactions.  

This means, I think, that the people in an organization who most often directly interact with the organization’s primary target audience must be empowered to nurture the kind of relationship that will prime the audience to receive and understand the organization’s message. If it works for the media, it should work for other audiences too.

The challenge, of course, will be to nurture as many individual relationships as possible and to do it as efficiently as possible.

This goal has always been the siren song of media relations and, more recently, of social media influencers. A well-placed story or Instagram post, it is assumed, reaches a larger audience much more efficiently.

While this might have been true once upon a time, we now know that the chance of reaching a target audience through these means is much more of a gamble and not a sure thing. It is also much more difficult to control the message that is delivered. An organization’s own employees, I think, are in a much better position to prime its audiences effectively.

The other important consideration is operational.

Who in an organization is ultimately accountable for ensuring that all employees who engage with the organization’s audiences are empowered to prime them for its message?

Because this outcome involves communication, many different parts of an organization could share the responsibility. Crucially, however, if no one part of it is definitively accountable, the organization’s approach will be neither uniform nor coherent and ultimately piecemeal.

If your audience is hearing multiple messages from different parts of the organization, it won’t hear any of them or only those it wants to hear.   

Ultimately, there are many paths to your target audience, but, if your audience is not ready to receive and understand your message, it will not be communicated. The path taken will matter little.

If it makes good sense to prime journalists and editors and social media influencers to hear your message, it makes good sense to prime your target audience directly, relying on the employees who most often interact with it.

If no part of your organization is specifically accountable for ensuring that all relevant employees are empowered to prime your audience, it is likely that no one is doing it or, at best, it being done piecemeal or as an afterthought.

If that is true, your organization is overlooking the most important piece of the communication puzzle. Without the charitable attention of your audiences, your messages, tactics and products will encounter only stony indifference.



Choose My Adventure: A Straw Poll.

A little help, please!

Without thinking too much about it, please pick one of these options …

I ask this question because I’m wondering if I should be more focused in my writing. You know, pick a niche and own it.

I also ask because I’ll be setting up a Patreon campaign. I want to make sure I frame the pitch around the kind of writing that is most appealing.

I also ask because I have so many writing ideas right now that I need some help setting priorities.

I look forward to the results. Thanks!

A Short History of Social Media: Hope, Defeat, and the Faint Hope of Renewal.

Winter Tree 2Once upon a time, in March of 2009, when I started using Twitter to support my recently acquired blogging habit, social media’s potential seemed to me to be unlimited. Its early promise lay in its ability to create new and unexpected connections and, ultimately, community. 

For about a year or two, anything seemed possible. Eager and creative people were using social media to connect with like-minded people regardless of the geography involved. Together, they worked and played to expand the bounds of the possible. It seemed like social media might break – at long last – the cultural dominance of mass marketing and its omnipresent brands.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that the early promise of social media was somewhat ephemeral. It originated, on the one hand, in the reluctance of the giants of mass marketing to embrace social media and, on the other hand, by the specific intentions and efforts of many of those early users. Once the big brands got on board, more middle-of-the-road organisations and users followed suit, and the culture of social media began to shift. Some of the best people were hired into those organizations and had to make social media more palatable to them. Many others simply lost interest, as users began to use the tools differently.

Other forces were at work too. The market demanded that social media generate revenue and profits. The owners of social media responded by embracing the old and familiar habit of selling advertising. They tweaked the tools to favour those who could and would pay to play, and those who paid to play played differently. Meanwhile, the mainstream media finally took an interest, focusing on social media success stories that made sense from the perspective of their business model, which requires attracting masses of eyeballs for advertisers. Very quickly, the goal of social media shifted from “connecting” to “going viral” and, as new users adopted the tools, they also adopted the culture of mass marketing achievement that was peddled to them. Users now acted like brands rather than people because they were told that was the secret to success.

Fortunately, people acting like brands is very dull indeed. I say “fortunately” because the hope for social media’s renewal lies precisely in this rising tide of dull, mass-marketed homogeneity. Users will respond, I hope, by rejecting the mass marketing ideology and by focusing once more on the promise and power of connecting with other like-minded people and communities in order to expand the bounds of the possible. It will, nevertheless, be much harder to connect these days with so much more noise in the mix, but, as they so often say, where there’s a will there’s a way.


A Tulip By Any Other Name: Facebook’s Market Capitalization Is A Symptom of What Ails Us.

Grey and BrutalImagine, for a moment, if Facebook broke — not for a few minutes, but for good. Like, forever.

How hard would it be for you to survive in the wake of its demise?

Certainly, the first few days would be frustrating, but, after a few days or, perhaps, a few weeks, your life – all of our lives – would carry on without any serious consequences.

Imagine now, if our drinking water and sewage systems or the electrical grid collapsed. How long do you think you would survive?

A few days? Sure. A few weeks? Probably, with a bit of careful planning. A few months? I’d guess no, especially if you had to survive Canada’s winter.

Don’t believe me? Think about it.

How would you get and store fresh water? How would you cook? How would you store fresh food? How would you avoid the cold of winter? Where would you safely dispose of your “human waste”? How would you work to earn a paycheck? In other words, how would you live?

In short, before long, you wouldn’t.

Now for the compare and contrast: The current market capitalization (Dec 22, 2015) of Facebook is about $CDN 410 billion. According to some estimates, it will cost about $31 billion to update and repair Canada’s water and wastewater systems. To upgrade all of Canada’s electricity infrastructure, it will cost about $300 billion.

Let that sink in.

The so-called rational market thinks Facebook is worth more than the complete refurbishment of an entire nation’s water and electricity infrastructure.

Facebook’s market capitalization is absurd. It is also symptom of what ails us. One of the most influential measures of value in Western society is driven by considerations which are wholly irrelevant to the short and long term well-being of most people. 

A social mechanism that generates so much money for so few people is not a measure of value. It is a measure of class and privilege. 

Genius is Dead! Long Live Liberal Democracy.

TheHerdIt was in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche that I first encountered the idea. The rise of liberal democracy, Nietzsche claimed, would spell the end of genius.

Why? Because the fact of genius is not an ahistorical transcendent property. It is determined instead by the value judgments of living breathing people. Traditionally, it was a fairly small group of people whose judgments determined who or what was considered genius in most fields. Because the standards of this group could easily be protected, perpetuated and propagated in an illiberal state or community, what seemed like genius yesterday still seemed like genius today. Genius looked to be ahistorical and transcendent only because its assessment was always made with the same values by the same kinds of people.

The value judgment game that determines who or what is genius changes considerably when everyone gets to play an equal role in it. In a well-functioning liberal democracy, it quickly becomes impossible to reserve the term’s use for any one community of value. It also quickly becomes apparent that our community’s genius is your community’s charlatan and that other community’s derivative copycat. With so many legitimate claims to the throne of genius, no person or community can lay claim to it as their own. Genius, like God, is not actually dead, of course. Rather, for clear thinking people, it becomes obvious that the idea of genius, as something which is ahistorical, transcendent and unique, is as silly as old men with white beards in clouds.

Genius, like truth and morality, is always relative to an audience. The illusion of a genius that transcends all communities and all times can be maintained only in illiberal and authoritarian power structures that allow one community of value to compel other communities of value to accept its judgments of value as the one true value judgment to rule them all. A genius needs authoritarian leaders and structures to undergird, protect, and enforce his or her claim to genius.

Like Nietzsche, I think a well-functioning liberal democracy is the nail in the coffin of genius. The explosion of social media is also helping to highlight this fact, as viral stars come and go. Unlike Nietzsche, however, I say good riddance. The term will, of course, still be used by various communities of value, but the more often it is used the less meaningful it will become. When every community thinks its god is the one true god, the idea of the one true god looks more and more suspect. In an equal and just society, no community can force its god on any others. Similarly, in an equal and just society, no community can force its standard of genius on anyone else. And that, I think, is a good thing.

Monetizing Social Media: What Won’t Work

PipesImagine if advertising had been used to monetize the telephone.

“Please listen to this short word from our sponsor before we complete your call.”

“We will reconnect your call after this short message from our sponsor.”

I doubt it would have worked.

My hunch is that the advertising approach to monetization won’t work for social media either. It won’t work for the same reason it wouldn’t work for the telephone. It fucks with the very reason we’re using the tool. If you fuck with that, we won’t use it.

I’m all for monetization. But, please don’t adopt an approach to monetization that ruins our reason for using social media.