Social Media – finding its own level?

Social media is accessible to all...

Social Media is accessible to all…

Recently I’ve come to see that as a communication tool Social Media is just like any other resource or commodity – it’s not an end in itself, it’s what you can do with it that makes it valuable.

If I had to make a comparison, I would say that Social Media is most like water – not just because we seem to be swimming (if not drowning) in the stuff; but because like water, it will find its own level. And as Myer CEO Bernie Brookes found out this week, something that sustains us can also be unleashed against us.

As content pours into our Social Media aquifers, it will naturally flow, collect and disperse. The rivers of content being uploaded daily* suggest that unlike other resources, Social Media will not run out any time soon:

  • Twitter: 400 million Tweets posted per day
  • Instagram: 40 million photos uploaded per day
  • YouTube: 72 hours of videos posted every minute
  • Facebook: 2.5 billion content items shared per day
  • LinkedIn: 175,000 new profiles created every day
  • SoundCloud: 10 hours of audio uploaded every minute

These reservoirs of digital content that we are creating could be put to good use (like dams that provide hydro-electricity). Viewed from this perspective, Social Media can be seen as a potential source of energy. Rather like waterwheels that harness the power of rivers, Social Media can be used to drive a range of applications; but left to its own devices, and with nowhere else to go, all this content will simply collect in stagnant pools – sometimes you need to use part of that energy to keep the water flowing downstream.

In just the past week I’ve been exposed to three more Social Media platforms, each of which is at advanced beta stage: @IFTTT – a tool to re-publish selected updates to multiple platforms via a series of automated decision trees; @Poptip – a tool for conducting polls via Twitter; and a personalized viral marketing tool which I probably cannot mention by name because I had to sign an NDA in order to participate in the pre-launch.

Each of these new platforms is trying to harness the potential of Social Media and keep the communication flowing (the waterwheel analogy). Similar to other Social Media platforms, these tools also act like aqueducts carrying water to where it’s needed. It’s as if we are using the content to feed a Social Media irrigation system – the results of which allow us to harvest followers, “likes” and customers.

The question is, who will we look to for inspiration when we come to write Social Media’s epitaph – will it be Smith, Bell, Coleridge or Goethe?** Will we end up drowning in the stuff (but no-one will notice until it’s too late)? Will we wish we had used it more sparingly? Will we be faced with an abundance that we cannot actually make use of? Or will it be a case of “be careful what you wish for”? (Clearly, King Canute is of no assistance, as it’s far too late to turn back the tide….)

* Note: Statistics gathered from a casual internet search of company websites, press releases and industry commentaries. No claims as to accuracy, currency or verification.

** Literary references: Stevie Smith – “Not Waving but Drowning”; William Bell – “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry)”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

“If it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen…”

I truly fear the day, probably some time in the very near future, when the phrase, “If it’s on Facebook, it must be true…” is used in open court as factual evidence. Not because I especially distrust this particular social networking platform, but because it would imply that social media has become a document of record. This would mean that content from Facebook and other social networks could be cited in court as evidence of information being true, of an event having occurred, or of a person (or object) actually existing.

Many commentators have explored this question of social media and “did it really happen” either in the context of existentialism (“I Instragram therefore I am”), or in respect to social media etiquette (“just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”). I am more concerned with what happens when we start to place inappropriate reliance upon content and information published via social media?

It took a number of years for faxes and e-signatures to be accepted in court as evidence of a document having been executed or a legally binding agreement having been created. E-mail is now admissible as evidence that a formal notice has been served between parties to a contract.

In some situations, e-mails and text messages are cited in court proceedings as evidence of a person’s promises, denials, deeds, opinions, state of mind or intent. “Smoking gun e-mails” are not uncommon in major court cases, and many organizations are required to archive e-mails and instant messaging for the very purpose of maintaining a “paper trail” in the event of future legal proceedings.

But I think we are far from ready to recognize social media as an official document of record, even though many users treat these platforms as a primary source of news and information.

Recently I was speaking to a Gen Y acquaintance who admitted that she got much of her daily news via a group of Facebook friends, who each post stories or news items as they hear or read about them on Facebook and the media. Given the immediacy of such “news bulletins”, the fact that this might be second-hand news does not seem to matter – “peer recommended” or “peer referred” information is often deemed to be just as reliable as the official or primary source, even if the content is selected on the basis of the number of “Likes” or how prominent it appears in search engine results.

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and their users are vulnerable to legal action if they propagate libelous or other offensive content; and as we know, this material can be used as evidence in criminal and other legal proceedings relating to cyber-bullying and hate speech, etc. That, I have no issue with.

Equally, I have no problem if social networks are used to announce births, deaths and marriages, or if companies want to communicate with their customers and suppliers via social media. If a customer seeks to rely upon the terms of an offer placed in a retailer’s Facebook page, that is no different to relying on a newspaper or broadcast advertisement. But let’s not equate publication on social media with our obligations to register or file certain events and official notices with the relevant authorities.

Social media allows each of us to be anonymous or hide behind assumed identities, and to publish what we want within the limits of free speech and other legally defined parameters.

But there is nothing to say that any of the stuff that we publish about ourselves has to be true or accurate, and I would be aghast if that was ever made a pre-condition for using social media. Social media is a wonderful platform for expressing opinions and exploring different aspects of our lives and our personalities, and it is precisely for this reason that social media is incapable of being regarded as a document of record.

Broadcastr signs off: 9 Challenges for Social Media

Social Media platforms – there seems to be one born every minute. By the time you finish reading this article, another 5 will have been launched somewhere in the world. And probably 5 more will have been shut down.

A recent casualty of what I call the “50 Shades of Social Media” syndrome is Broadcastr, a user-contributed audio content platform for location-based story telling.

In their farewell note to the Broadcastr user community, co-founders Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum stated:

“While we’d love to keep Broadcastr alive, technology requires money, active development, and maintenance. We’re a small team, and, sadly, don’t have the resources to continue development.”

Broadcastr has inevitably lost out to category-killer SoundCloud, an earlier site that dominates Social Media audio content (and is also the likely cause for the wavering fortunes of MySpace). In recent months, iTunes has withdrawn its Ping social networking application for music fans; Webdoc has rebranded itself as Urturn (possibly due to confusion surrounding its name) and Yahoo! has just announced it is withdrawing a number of Social Media products – not forgetting that Yahoo! dumped Buzz, a social news site that was hard to distinguish from Digg. There are even some mutterings that Google+ does not yet justify the hype as a serious Social Media platform to take on Facebook or Twitter.

Even if you are first to market with a new Social Media platform, most sites are just a different (not necessarily better) mousetrap – same bait to tempt you in, same tools to capture your attention. The sheer volume of sites means that they are hard to differentiate from one another – hence the “50 Shades of Social Media” syndrome. Each Social Media site is trying to become THE destination for its target audience, but as The Cure once sang, “In the caves, all cats are grey.” Despite their differences, all Social Media platforms end up looking pretty much the same.

In light of the heated competition for market traction, here are 9 challenges to success in Social Media:

1 There are essentially only 5 types of Social Media platform:

2 There are only a limited number of activities you can do within these sites, such as “like”, “follow”, “share”, “post”, “publish”, “comment”, “recommend” and “tag”.

3 Increasingly, single-purpose or single-interest Social Media sites are attempting to cross over into adjacent domains, in an attempt to build scale and stickiness, and to improve the user experience.

4 This diversification means Social Media lose focus, dilute their original offering, and potentially alienate users.

5 Every Social Media platform starts out claiming to be different and offering something unique – but both the content and the business models are relatively easy to replicate, which is why we see multiple variations of the same concept or minor iterations with each new site.

6 As we engage with multiple Social Media platforms, we need our own personal media monitoring and management systems just to keep tabs on everything, especially when sites start to overlap as they encompass richer media formats and enhanced content functionality.

7 Meanwhile, the increasing inter-connectivity between different sites means that as individual users we can multi-channel as if we are our own mini cable networks.

8 But as with cable TV, multi-channelling leads to audience fragmentation and narrowcasting (which in turn has an impact on advertising revenue).

9 The Social Media industry will be subject to further mergers and acquisitions like Facebook’s purchase of Instagram, and consolidation will inevitably result in an oligarchy of dominant players, as happens with all media.