No one to hear you scream

2012 Olympic celebrations in Trafalgar Square

An interesting comment on the last post came back to a topic which I seem to be asked, or ask myself, more and more often. If social media increasingly leads to closed groups, and tomorrow’s media consumers are increasingly avoiding the mass media, what will happen to mass-participation media events, and don’t we as a culture lose something if we lose common points of reference. What on earth will we talk about around the water cooler?

In particular, I’ve heard this as a strong initial response to Clay Shirky, who argues here that however ‘sad’ it is to play World of Warcraft, it’s a better use of the ‘cognitive surplus’ than watching a re-run of Gilligan’s Island for the 100th time. (Incidentally, what was the cognitive heatsink that we had as kids in the UK? Clearly Neighbours later on but before that? Rocketman?).

Of course, this is not a new idea. I remember years ago, a planner explained to me why you couldn’t advertise cars with direct mail – it wasn’t enough for me to know how cool my new Audi is, I need to be certain all my neighbors knew too.

Perhaps the point about ‘mass-participation media events’ isn’t that their power is diminishing (witness Apprentice this year), but rather that they are fewer and more extraordinary.

There also seems to be a point now that whole social groups can have ‘mass-participation’ events which they all know about but which are entirely closed to those outside of the group: that wierd feeling you get when everyone in a room’s been reading the same status’ and knows each others business without having ever discussed it.

It remains worth remembering a serious challenge that has been raised by commentators including Esther Dyson and Andrew Orlowski, about how these groups aren’t necessarily healthy, challenging or participatory. Often preferring to define very strict group rules and mores.

The final point, of course, is just what we mean by participation. By 2012, when the Olympic games is going on in London, what will the experience of watching it be like? If you’ve seen what NBC has planned for Beijing, the mind boggles about what it will be like in 4 1/2 years (three times the gestation period for a standard YouTube) but most certainly there will be opportunities to observe almost everything about the event, to turn the event into a private mass media event for your network, to ‘virtually’ compete and to compile, annotate and share your own coverage. 

With apologies for shoplifting to Hugh MacLeod, mass participation media events have always – of course -been social objects. So in the era of mass media, it’s not a surprise the objects themselves tended to have the same traits. Whilst we may still have global events to built frameworks around, surely local (and group) interpretation and meaning can be added to createsocial object which can be more intimately shared.

The reason, it seems to me, that nobody understands microblogging unless they do it themselves, is that they don’t understand how small social objects can be.

And, to revisit the negativity of small disconnected groups (and ever-decreasing differences of opinion in those groups), technology can take these objects and make them available to huge audiences. Anyone can write a blog, anyone can produce a LOLcat (as Shirky jokes), and by 2012, everyone will be able to participate in our global media event.

It is this access to open social objects which is at the heart of participation in all cases. It’s what got all the bloggers I know addicted, it’s what makes teenagers turn the telly off and Facebook on, and it’s what makes Amelia’s wired retired fall in love with Skype, so they can share the smallest of social objects – not  just their grandchildren’s first words or their first tooth, but their everyday stories about the day at school.

And do I really need to know how many people watched The Apprentice altogether if I know that my family, friends and colleagues watched it. Isn’t that enough?

Fun and games

Image of inside of cathedral. The church has been very successful at creating shared meaning.

There’s been a fun discussion on Gaping Void the last couple of days in response to Hugh’s post Social objects for beginners. In particular, Rachel Bellow weighed in with:

‘Social objects are the particular manifestation of shared meaning, right? So that suggests there’s a drive underlying all these manifestations… that the social object is not, in itself, the drive. The need for meaning… specifically shared meaning… is a deep human impulse that will, invariably, manifest in some form or another. If not this social object, another. Social networks like Facebook are simply evidence of that quest. Aren’t they simply forums where the quest for shared meaning can coalesce and result in manifestation (social objects)?’

I take her point to be this: What we observe might be the social object itself: the iPhone, the new baby, Christmas etc; but is the deeper underlying question about shared meaning which matters.

This is clearly not a small question, sounding more like the challenges faced in epistemology by many of the greatest philosophers for centuries. In particular, Wittgenstein (to radically oversimplify) understood all truths to be social, and the process of being judged to be correct little more than proving you could adhere to the common ‘language games’.

Just a small observation on that point. Before we had Facebook, the internet and so on, shared meaning was restricted to geographical or language groupings.

What is the most successful shared meaning ever? Surely it is the church, who managed to create a common language shared by millions across social and geographical borders.

However, as discussed here, we are not saying that the control of social meaning has been democratised by digital media. Instead, it has clearly been decentralised. Disparate groups across any divide (except the digital divide) can now free-form groups of shared meaning. The other massive shift is that being a member of one meaning-group (perhaps we should call them ‘karass‘ in honour of KV), is no longer exclusive. I can simultaneously be in multiple groups and I can bridge those groups for other members.

People have talked as Google as a ‘reputation management system‘. that’s always seemed a little narrow to me. How about Google (et al) as a ‘map of social meaning’, and imagine the power it will have when the engines understand the groupings of the communities of meaning.

This all seems very abstract. But of course, there is also a question here about exactly the how the role of social objects works in deciding how people buy things. It is this practical question which Hugh is discussing in today’s post: Why Social Objects are the Future of marketing.

Hugh asks ‘if your product is not a Social Object, why are you in business?’. I think we should revise that to ‘If your brand is not a Social Object, why are you in business?’. Brands are all about shared meaning of course, and branding is an attempt to influence and control that meaning.

I also think we need to look at two hierachies in which brands can exist as social objects. The first is the role they play in people’s lives in the continuum between need and want: between physical survival, functional value, enjoyability, emotional connection, social expression, and growth and learning. Notice the different relations we have to the heating in our houses, and our sports utility vehicles; between the newly born child and the newly purchased house. Luckily for us, as Hugh points out:

‘The bad news is, most products are boring. The good news is, most word-of-mouth is boring’.

The second hierarchy is a fascinating one as I presume it will be the key decider as to how social objects will spread, and therefore can help in marketing products. The second hierarchy is the observation that wherever a social object exists (within a context of shared meaning), it is not necessarily shared between two parties on an equal footing. Within the community of shared interest we have leaders and followers. These roles can change, but the landscape is not flat. And, similarly, the motivations around the objects themselves is not flat. Different members of the community will be trying to achieve radically different things.

Sense and sociability

 How hyped can you go (iphone launch pic)?

There’s an absolutely cracking article on Mashable about the various social network’s monetisation strategy. The author points out that it takes an awful lot of personalisation to make up for hitting people with messages at the wrong time (and that entertainment doesn’t translate to word of mouth).

It’s a very reasonable criticism, and it’s always worth re-iterating why adWords is so powerful and lucrative in the face of alleged competitors.

However, I think all of this does potentially mask what is actually going on here by looking it at within the framework of disruptive advertising media.

In any market you need to have a buyer as  well as a seller. That’s why what facebook is selling is more or less ‘advertising shaped’ opportunities; so advertisers – set in their ways as they are – stand a chance of being able to buy them.

But I think there’s something much more interesting happening too. and it’s not just what happened when loads of brands stuck up crass MySpace pages. There is an opportunity for brands to define the role they play as social objects. Clearly, that should be alot more sophisticated than the lamentable early attempts I mentioned the other day.

From there it will simply not be about how loud the brand shouts, but it’s ability to get at least some of its customers really hyped up.

In my day


A good day, yesterday for things fitting together and falling into place (to mix up the metaphors a little). The day started reading Amelia’s amazing piece in the Spectator. However much you’re in to new media there’s no denying how cool it is to read people you know in august titles like that, especially when Amelia’s piece is longer, and more prominent than – for examples – Roy Hattersley’s.

The article itself was about the generational gap emerging in technology adoption and it’s well… us. Younger people (under 20s)  find technology to be simply a fact of life* and the older groups (55+) are not cynical about it and have the time and money to explore and adopt.

Slightly ironically, the slow adopters are the group that Coupland named as “Generation X” (today’s 30-somethings) who have the healthy cynicism that comes from having seen the bubble burst once already but without the older generation’s (or indeed Mr C’s) resources to explore and experiment.

A very convincing argument, although one which I suspect is still slightly class-bound, it reinforces many of the points I heard later in the day in a fantastic presentation about social media which Antony gave at Conchango (where I work).

There were hundreds of interesting ideas in that presentation but if I had to pick just three, they would be:

  1. What is happening in the way we communicate really is nothing less than a revolution. As Antony put it, that name may seem overblown as it’s been used too much and too randomly but we must standby it. As with other revolutions in the past, the full effects may take years to become apparent, but Web 1.0, Web 2.0… whatever is as big as the printing press, as big as the enlightenment. As Cluetrain would have it: “deal with it”
  2. When we give people the tools, whether they’re 5 or 55, they take to them. Why? Because we are hard wired to communicate. It’s not clever graphics or gimmickry, it is the need for sociality and it isn’t going anywhere.
  3. Advertising agencies act like they’re getting the message, as they jump on every bandwagon through web-two-point-zero-ville but they are wearing the clothes of the revolutionary without sharing their beliefs. Driven by fear and the desire to return to the well-trodden paths of old, clients and agencies are missing the huge opportunities they could have to actually deliver the basics of marketing through network thinking.

There was a huge amount more of course, plus a look at how Spannerworks is helping clients get to grips with what can be achieved with a positive approach to the new realities.

Finally, I was able listen to Forrester’s take on what web 2.0 means within enterprises. This is a huge topic in its own right, obviously, and one that’s moving very quickly and being driven by a bizarre mix of tiny software companies like Six Apart and the huge vendors like Microsoft and Oracle.

Two points from that resonated, both of which have been talked about in a number of places before but which were really crystallized today.

  1. Getting to grips with scale. No matter how big your company is. It’s absolutely tiny in the domain of the internet (Antony also made this point). Again, this is a “get used to it” sort of a moment for the large corporates.
  2. Back to demographics. Who’s likely to be making the decision about corporate take up of “web 2.0” styles of knowledge management? It’s the IT and operations directors who are unlikely to consume social media and even less likely to contribute to it. Who’s are the next generation of recruits coming into our companies? A group who see these tools as part of day to day life! So expect some very quickly changing attitudes as the new recruits gain their voice.

* Antony recounted a story of a focus group where 11-14 year olds were asked what they would do without the internet. The questioner was met by a series of completely blank looks, as the group found the prospect unimaginable.

Twitter thee not

Continuous partial attention 

I was on the way home tonight, reading infantile inanity in Metro when I got this Twitter from the marvellous Russell Davies

the russians who’ve vastly improved our local chip shop are now also hosting chess tournaments

I think Russell remind us all that twittering is a skill not an obligation. Take your continuous partial attention how you please but we should all try to captivate which each word, twitter or not. So no more “at work”, “going to bed” please, myself included.

What would Kurt say?

 Kurt Vonnegut

In my favourite novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut invents the religion of Bokononism – a faith exclusive to the people on the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. As well as a number of practices such as semi-ecstatic ritual involving the touching of feet (‘boku-maru’), Vonnegut describes the idea of karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident

When I met Thomas, I quickly got the feeling that he was part of my karass.

Throughout the remainder of Vonnegut’s career, this became a repeating ideal as he saw the explosion of the extended family as a considerable loss for society as a whole. In Slapstick: Or Lonesome No More!, Dr Wilbur Daffodil, King of Manhattan and US president, has declared a law whereby all US citizens must be given a new middle name. All people with the same middle name are then to become cousins who must look out for each other.

He returns to the idea in speeches and anthologies more and more passionately. I have been wondering what he would have made of the whole MyBook, YouFace, SpaceBebo phenomonen that has really only taken dramatic hold since Vonnegut’s recent death.

And the one thing that strikes me mostly strongly is our general willingness to be negative about the social change that is happening to us. To look for ways in which it exentuates existing negatives, is a threat to children and causes semi-addictive behaviour.

What technology is enabling, is for people to be present in each others lives more. What big cities, Margaret Thatcher, social mobility, geographic mobility, Norman Tebbit and our busy lives have set to tear apart; Facebook and its ilk puts back together. Is it socially dividing? Who cares? These are self selecting groups, not some New Labour attempt to make us all love each other. These are tensions that can bind some together and exist in our day-to-day lives.

But whilst not everyone will want to be in everyone else’s group or list of friends (as true online as offline) where our groups are broad and diverse, that will be amplified. No two users are likely to have precisely the same network, they will cross and extend each other. As Antony says, we’re hard-wired to enjoy sociability. I think it’s great. And I think Kurt would too.

New balls please

Tennis balls 

Mike Butcher picks up on the Brand Republic story about the future of social networks being in niche verticals.

The most remarkable thing about the original article – about the Association of Tennis Professional (ATP) launching a ‘social network’ with 10Duke – is the lack of thought added to the piece by the journalist as she fairly obviously retypes a press release. What she forgets to mention is that companies don’t get to launch social networks – social networks do.

This article has attracted quite a lot of coverage, so it’s a real shame that it’s so uncritical. Even 30 seconds of Googling would have uncovered the woeful test site. Couldn’t any of us have done better on Ning in five minutes? Or if time is short – spend two minutes making a Facebook group as Mike suggests, and then support it with interesting content, as they should be doing anyway.

As with all these ventures, build it and they will come does not – by a long shot – make sense. And the investment should go into interesting and engaging content. Without an audience playing ball (sorry), the world welcomes one more empty warehouse from ATP. Consumers do not need brands to provide enablement, they need brands to provide interest.

No logo?

What’s missing from every page of YourSpace except the home page?

Lilly Allen - My Space

Give up?

It’s the logo stupid. Aside from the URL and a couple of subbranding elements (like the player), there is no MySpace branding. The site hands ownership properly to its users but has done a very neat trick through being recognisable just through its (ugly, illegible) UGC design patterns.

(Incidentally, what is all this nonsense about Lily Allen (who I used for the grab above) being fat? If we let Girls Aloud people criticise proper musicians for not being anorexic, we really are in trouble – 2338 responses to that post!).

Feeding the disease

There’s seems to have been a massive surge in Facebook popularity, amongst my contacts at least. Can this new contender catch up with the mighty MySpace? Currently Facebook is trailing by 20m users to MySpace’s 180m and Live Space’s 120m.

If they can, it will be testament to their user-centred approach over MySpace’s feature loading. And what’s the feature that best matches a user-need? It must be matching users’ desire to feed the very noughties craving for continuous partial attention.

Facebook delivers twitter-like features to a new level, turning general user actions into usable community content snippets, displaying a constant feed of information not just about status but also in structured information. “John has added Amelie to his favourite films”, “X and Y are now friends”, “Z in now single” and transforming potentially dull information to a great mini soap opera.


Keep it up lads. And here’s another  great little tool which maps your network, showing the relatively popularity of your friends and how they all link together:
Bored of the book

Stars and stripes

Axis of Feeble

I love the Economist so was slightly underwhelemed to  read on Open that their crack team on Project Red Stripe, after several months of deliberation into the paper’s future have come back with a social network solution. In their own words

Our mission is to develop truly innovative services online. In the past three weeks, we’ve used this site to collect ideas and received nearly 300 of them – more than we expected. We never intended to just run with them and we will now post summaries, each focusing on one theme or group of ideas. This will feed into our own idea generation process, the result of which we look forward to bringing to market.

Guys, look behind you. I think alot of us feel we could have saved you a lot of blood, sweat, tears and white board markers by guessing this would be the shape of the answer before the team was formed.

But also more important, to generate a relevant future path for your excellent newspaper, have a look at the newspaper itself. What do people like about it? They like that it distills complex issues for quick digestion but without dumbing them down. It is the opposite of blogging.

One thing which is telling. In the shortlist of potential solutions to their problems, is a list of other people’s solutions to other problems. Do they “do a facebook” or “do a wikipedia”. Well, how about they “do a Ted Talks”. The founders at Ted realised that the web is just a facet of what they do, it is not what they do. Users don’t perceive value in media selection but in content, connection and ideas.

Perhaps the team’s mission was too grand. As far as I can see, a bit of fine tuning of the newspaper’s site and emails would be enough to keep them on course.