Wednesday, July 15, 2009

why I love social media

because social ties are inherently interesting--and media platforms that support new kinds of social ties are changing everything

Perhaps predictably, the best analysis of the future of news media that I've so far come across comes from technology guru Clay Shirky.

Shirky compares journalism to driving: the ability to drive spread from people who were paid to drive to the general public. "We still pay people to drive," Shirky writes,
from buses to race cars, and there are more paid drivers today than there were in the days of the chauffeur. Paid drivers are, however, no longer the majority of all drivers.

Like driving, journalism is not a profession — no degree or certification is required to practice it, and training often comes after hiring — and it is increasingly being transformed into an activity, open to all, sometimes done well, sometimes badly, but at a volume that simply cannot be supported by a small group of full-time workers. The journalistic models that will excel in the next few years will rely on new forms of creation, some of which will be done by professionals, some by amateurs, some by crowds, and some by machines.

We're not headed for a journalistic upgrade, Shirky explains; "[t]he change we’re living through isn’t an upgrade, it’s a upheaval, and it will be decades before anyone can really sort out the value of what’s been lost versus what’s been gained."

This is precisely why Matt Jones' recent provocatively titled article "Why I Hate Social Media", is not only dangerously misguided, it's also painfully short-sighted. Jones' justification is fairly simple: media just isn't that interesting.

People are interesting. Ideas are interesting. Stories are interesting. Real stuff is interesting. Brands are interesting (or, at least, some of them are). Even ads can be interesting. But media? Media just connects those things. It's a conduit. Media is not interesting. Not even the "social" kind.

I reject the very premise of Jones' argument and did so publicly in the comments section beneath his article. But in fact, I learned more about why Jones is so short-sighted by tracking readers' comments. Here's a gem from a reader calling himself Wildebees:
There's a well known media theorist called Marshall McLuhan. Heard of him? He said "the medium is the message". It's not just the content of media that's important. The way the content is transmitted itself significantly impacts how our world works. If you don't get the medium, you are going to make the wrong suggestions to your clients....

Get this. All media is social. From the printing press, to the telephone, all the way to Twitter. But the process of becoming social have dramatically accelerated with the convergence of the telco and computer industry. Social media is not a trend, but a fundamental human urge to communicate. And now we have the media do do so.

Wildebees was fairly easy to track, and I'm now following him on Twitter. He is, in fact, the one who linked me to the Shirky piece in the first place. And this points to a big piece of why Jones is so very, very wrong about social media: new platforms offer us new ways to connect with like-minded people--to join a vast series of what network theorist Yrjo Engestrom calls "knotworks": dynamically changing and distributed collaborative networks structured around participation in projects or tasks. The emergence of new media platforms means I can rely on a group of like-minded people--who are also relying on their own sets of like-minded people--to track, filter, and identify information that I might find useful. They do it for me, I do it for them, everybody gets smarter in the process.

I can't imagine being the kind of person who finds this phenomenon "uninteresting."


Ironicus Maximus said...

Well, OK, you can have your fancy schmancy social media thingys, but as long as the journalists keep writing stories like this:

And the republicans keep Tweeting, we'll be happy here in the marbled halls of IM Central

Eduardo said...

I think to a great extent, the reason see this phenomenon as uninteresting is precisely the reason why it is interesting.

I find it very important to take a step back and understand the context about the notion that "the medium is the message". This goes against our deeply rooter, almost naturalized Aristotelian idea that form and matter can be separated - with all of its subsequent metaphysical consequences. Under this assumption, different forms are just different ways to look at the same matter, which is in itself substance, unity, preservation. Forms may change, but matter remains.

When, on the other hand, we start saying that context and form are transformative of matter, and that in fact, the two cannot be really separated, we're going against fundamental ideas on which we've built our assumptions on truth and falsehood, on identity and authenticity, on good and evil. It is not surprising, then, to find these kinds of reactions: the current context is confronting people with the vague, barely graspable notion that they have to rearrange they way they understand knowledge, truth, responsibility. But the way we know just seems so natural, we think of new media from the vantage point of old categories, and of course it seems uninteresting. It's just the same as always, only quicker and less tidy.

But that's precisely why it is interesting in the first place: because our basic assumptions on how we structure reality are being put under such close scrutiny. There's a fascinating chapter in McLuhan's Understanding Media that's titled "Challenge and Collapse", where he compares the challenge our literal culture faces against electric technology to the challenge medieval culture faced in the printing press. Medieval culture downplayed the role of the printing press and saw it as a continuation of what it already knew, and was mostly wiped out in the process, very ungraciously. To mitigate the traumatic blow from electric culture, we need to think of media differently in line with what our times and our technologies allow, to understand the way in which we structure messages and social relations.

Longer comment than I expected, sorry! Good post.

Megan said...

Great post! I hope you don't mind, but I quoted you in my blog, I love your writing and insight!


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