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.

In Praise Of Analogue…

Let me start by saying that I am not a technophobe, and I certainly do not consider myself a Luddite. But in this digital age, I do have a certain fondness for all things analogue.

Cassette Culture is alive and well in the analogue world...

Cassette Culture is alive and well in the analogue world…

There are growing analogue trends in:

  • photographyLomography and Polaroid
  • music – vinyl and cassette
  • publishing – zines and artists’ books
  • filmSuper 8
  • graphics – letterpress
  • arts & craftsEtsy and Craftsy

More and more of us are drawn to the charms and quirks of the analogue world, and not out of some perverse counter-culture posturing – we actually like this stuff for its own sake, and for the qualities that it represents:

  • slowness
  • tactile
  • considered
  • basic
  • hand-made
  • imperfect
  • uncomplicated
  • finite
  • flawed
  • serendipitous
  • warm
  • personal
  • custom-made
  • limited
  • simplicity

In fact, these key characteristics of analogue are antonyms of most things digital….

For many people who are using analogue production processes, the medium really is the message; and what you see really is what you get, because the products are usually a true representation of the work and effort that go in to making them.

However, the appeal of analogue is not just about the format or the technology; the inherent limitations of analogue production processes lead to natural constraints which inform the content and determine the final outcome of the finished object. For example, the number of photographs an analogue camera can take at any one time is limited by the length of the roll of film; a vinyl album can carry about 22-23 minutes of music on each side; a plate used in a hand-made printing process can usually generate editions of no more than 30 before it starts to deteriorate.

There are some traditional analogue domains where the digital format does enhance the user experience e.g., digital radio (although I sometimes miss the hum and crackle of AM broadcasts); or where digital technology introduces a whole new dimension e.g., 3-D printing; or where digital can resurrect/replicate a virtual experience of analogue e.g., iOS apps that mimic classic analogue synthesizers.

On the other hand, on-line communities are moving to “analogue” events via meet-ups because being there in person offers a deeper connection. I recently attended an afternoon salon conducted by a digital media agency, because they recognize the need to interact face-to-face with customers.

I anticipate that in response to a growing sense of digital disintermediation, more of us will start to engage with and interact through analogue media. This should not be seen as an out and out rejection of digital, but more as a means to establish balance and to find a deeper level of engagement beyond the often superficial shimmer of digital gloss.

Declaration of interest: the author, under an assumed nom de musique, recently released a limited edition cassette version of his last album, available on-line and from select record stores in Melbourne

Facebook becomes “The Daily Like”?

Facebook has recently announced some changes to its core News Feed application. In short, Facebook subscribers will be able to apply a limited range of filters to their News Feed, by content type and source.

According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “What we’re trying to do is give everyone in the world the best personalised newspaper we can.”

That’s a big call.

First, this “newspaper content” will be sourced from your friends’ activity, (or their shared photos), a music feed (largely based on what your friends are listening to), or a feed of content from any page you like, or from any person that you follow.

Second, the updated News Feed design will promote the greater use of images, which will be given more screen space.

And thirdly, the goal is to grow revenue from sponsored posts and targeted advertisements, based on your personal “likes”, and other built-in Facebook algorithms like EdgeRank.

For me, whether published in print or on-line, the core prerequisites of a newspaper are:

  • A stated editorial policy, and preferably an independent editorial board 
  • Independent, objective and unbiased fact-based reporting (including fact-checking)
  • Robust journalistic standards
  • Strong editorial quality
  • Clear separation of content type (news, opinion, advertorial, advertising, sponsorship)
  • Adherence to a credible code of practice, especially on media ethics
  • Full declarations of interest by journalists, reporters and opinion writers*

Most newspapers are subject to media regulations or licensing systems around proprietorial “fitness”, ownership control, cross-media assets and censorship. Newspapers are also subject to general laws regarding libel, blasphemy, privacy, incitement, discrimination and copyright.

There are already a number of regulatory reviews of ownership, standards and ethics by mainstream news media in the wake of alleged phone hacking and other malpractices. There is also debate as to whether on-line platforms that carry “news” should be subject to more stringent media regulation.

Apart from some issues with censorship and legal requests to remove offensive material (which apply to all content providers), I don’t see Facebook operating under a formal newspaper regime.

While Facebook may aspire to become “The Daily Like”, I don’t believe it wants to be treated (or taken seriously) as a regular “newspaper”. Otherwise, it would likely have to register as a newspaper in every jurisdiction where its content is accessed,  disseminated or uploaded. Perhaps what Facebook really means is that it wants to dominate on-line advertising (using your own content as the bait) while continuing to claim the platform is “free” to end users.

*Declaration of interest: the author is not now on Facebook (reluctantly).