I recently read Content Nation: Surviving and Thriving as Social Media Changes Our Work, Our Lives, and Our Future, a recent book by John Blossom (User:Jblossom) that discusses the impact of social media and how it may transform our lives in the future. I happened to have a mutual contact with John, and after introducing myself, he agreed to participate in a Signpost interview. What follows is a wikified transcription of the interview.
1. Content Nation discusses the lonelygirl15 video series and likens it to the tale of Robinson Crusoe in that both stories took advantage of a young publishing form to showcase a new kind of storytelling. Content Nation also discusses Gutenberg's printing press as being the one single event that completely revolutionized the technology of publishing. Is there any one social media event or technology that you associate with Gutenberg's printing press as being the single revolutionary spark?
Good question. As I mention in the book, Saurier Duval's Museum of Modern Betas Web site lists more than 4,000 publishing tools and services that have been identified in just the past four years that social media-oriented. With this in mind, I think that it's a little difficult to choose one social media technology to Gutenberg's breakthrough with the movable type printing press. In fact, I would say that this is one of the key differences between social media's challenges to established publishing norms versus established publishing regimens. With the proliferation of publishing tools available to anyone with a Web connection, we have generated millions upon millions of Gutenbergs, and in doing so have created so many Gutenberg-style moments for different cultures at different times that it's easy to lose count of them.
With that in mind, I do think that there are a few key moments that stand out in the development of social media, some of which I have captured in the Content Nation book. We could, for example, consider the very first Web site on the Internet, which had its own primitive form of weblog that kept that then-small community abreast of events on that nascent medium. However, that moment is a bit like Alexander Bell's first telephone from one room to another in his laboratory to call for help from his assistant; significant, but not influential widely at the time as a communication. Since true social media is a highly scalable and affordable medium, I think that we need to look at the early 21st century as the time at which the breakthrough potential of social media became apparent. The three events that stand out most in my mind along these lines are the "Star Wars Kid" phenomenon, The Kryptonite lock incident and the introduction of services such as Blogger.com and TypePad.com.
"Star Wars Kid" was a 15 year-old boy in suburban Montreal who had the misfortune of having a particularly geekish video of him swirling a broom handle around like a light sabre posted on a file sharing service by some schoolmates. It spread like wildfire around the world, was remixed countless times and eventually gathered so much attention that people who felt sorry for the boy sent him donations to comfort him for his unwanted notoriety. Millions of people downloaded this otherwise obscure moment in a matter of weeks, eventually gaining coverage in major media outlets. I'd say this was a particularly important early moment for social media, because it demonstrated that any individual could gain worldwide distribution and monetization of content without the support of mainstream media outlets. In "Star Wars Kid," the fundamental mechanisms that underlie social media today were fully activated on a global scale in a highly influential way.
The Kryptonite bike lock, which was revealed by a video on an obscure user forum to be hackable with a simple ball-point pen, is another significant early moment for social media in that it showed that the ability of social media to have rapidly scalable influence could have a major impact on commerce. The makers of the bike lock were aware of the video clip almost from the time that it was posted, but didn't realize until several days later that a broader array of social media channels had made the product weakness known very widely across the Web. This forever broke through the assumption that a small handful of enthusiasts on a given topic could be treated as an isolated community. With social media, anyone could have global impact on brand perceptions overnight. The impact of this phenomenon is still being felt in today's commerce and is beginning to change the fundamentals of how marketing is being managed worldwide.
The advent of Blogger and TypePad, free weblogging services, is from a technology standpoint perhaps the closest thing to a Gutenberg moment in social media. In these free services that enabled anyone to become a global publisher on highly scalable publishing platforms at a moment's notice, we broke through at last the technology barriers that separated the average person from being full-fledged citizens of Content Nation. From the moment that publishing technology was taken out of the hands of people with specialized knowledge to virtually anyone with access to the Web, the fundamental premise of social media as a highly influential publishing tool that could scale up to challenge major media organizations for insight and attention was unleashed. Blogging now represents only a portion of social media publishing activity, but it's important to remember that even as little as four or five years ago it was considered just a fringe element. Today there is not a major media organization in the world that does not rely upon blogging tools in one form or another. Those same technologies enabled also the development of publications such as the Huffington Post, which aggregated headlines for major media outlets and blogs from prominent contributors. With blogging tools, not only could any individual become a publisher, but any individual or group could become an editorial force for content aggregation.
2. The third chapter of Content Nation (Social Structure in Content Nation: Changing Tribes, New Leaders) discusses a wide variety of statistics regarding the growth and impact of social media. Is there any one statistic that you think is most indicative of this growth? Or is it even possible for statistics to accurately describe the full effect that social media has had on our lives?
The statistics for social media growth are staggering from almost every perspective, which is in a sense why I came up with the concept of gauging "Content Nation" as a group of influencers within that greater body of social media participation. With more than 1.4 billion people using the Web today globally and more than 300 million Facebook users, it's easy to get lost in the scale of what is happening in social media. If each of the 74 million or so influencers who make up Content Nation influence just twenty unique individuals, they influence everyone on the Web today. That's a realistic picture of staggering proportions.
But if you had to choose one of the more common statistics I'd stick with a "top sites" global ranking as a good place to start. Based on current Alexa.com statistics, which are far from perfect but reasonably informative on a large global scale, four of the top ten Web sites in the world are pure social media plays (Facebook being the number two destination), and six of the top thirteen are pure social media plays, with Twitter now number twelve.
Now, add in all of the services and features at destinations such as Google, Yahoo, AOL and MSN that are social media plays and it's fair to say that most people's online attention is focused primarily on social media. We want to communicate with the people who matter to us most, no matter the channels. Social media simply extends the graph of possible ways to do that influentially at a pace never seen before in human history.
Another key stat that I found interesting: 41 percent of Twitter users would prefer to contact someone via social media rather than by telephone.
3. No discussion of social media would be complete without mentioning the debilitating effect it has had on the music industry. That social media was able to single-handedly change the entire industry was made possible by technologies that allowed the creation and replication of music far more efficiently than ever before. As new technologies continue to develop, do you foresee any other industries upon which social media might have a similar effect?
Good question. You're right in that technologies such as file sharing services have undermined the presumed scarcity of well-reproduced music. The key factor that social media has also changed, though, is not simply enabling near-free distribution of music but also enabling much more effective marketing models. More music can be exposed to more people in more specific contexts than ever before. Moreover, more artists can develop direct relationships with their audiences through social media, enabling them to build their brands more cost-effectively. As I suggest in Content Nation, this goes beyond the "Long Tail" concept of popular music finding niche audiences over time. It's more about what I call the "big sombrero" economy, in which more money can be made in niche markets that may never grow into mass markets than in mass markets. I think that this "big sombrero" economic effect impacts many economies previously ignored by mass marketers. For example, just to stick with music for a moment, independent artists who have been long ignored by major music companies are able to develop global niche markets for their music without the support of major labels via online channels. None of the individually may be important artists, but in sum the attention that they gather will be more important than a few mass market stars. Instead of focusing on the copyright to a handful of mass-produced stars, the music industry should focus on enabling massively contextual markets for niche stars who have relationships with their markets that are hard to reproduce. It's quality relationships that are most valuable and hardest to reproduce.
To take it to other markets beyond pure media, eliminating artificial scarcity of supply and demand can help on many levels economically, especially for those who have been forced to use "middle men" to access markets. One example that I give in the book is especially important - finance. Services such as MicroPlace and Kiva are enabling individuals in small businesses to receive very small loans - microloans - to finance improvements to their business that commercial banks are unlikely to consider. This enables the flow of capital from one local economy to another, rather than flowing into centralized financial institutions that draw capital out of local economies. We are also seeing fundamental shifts in the development of scientific and technical products through the democratization of the distribution of scientific and technical research. Rather than having institutions pay thousands of dollars to subscribe to individual scholarly journals, the Open Access movement is promoting free access to such journals, with the editorial support required to ensure quality journals supported either by subsidies or payments by publishing authors. In a sense, though, even the Open Access movement is becoming somewhat moot, as researchers increasingly use social media services and other channels to make their preliminary findings available to colleagues before formal papers are published in journals. Yet again, it's valued relationships in valued contexts that create content value.
In these and many more examples, the real question is what produces value on a massive scale. For the music industry and many other industries it's been the creation of massive amounts of a small number of standardized products. Social media argues that if you make standardized things inexpensive or free - such as the open source software used to run many social media services - and focus on creating massive amounts of highly contextual products and services, economies and markets can grow more rapidly and effectively in a way that benefits the producers of the value in those markets more effectively. Centralized publishing, the DNA of civilization for much of the past five thousand years, is being replaced by social media DNA, which will enable economic systems that may not resemble today's economies in many ways but which will enable people to adapt more rapidly to changing markets and changes to our environment. Individuals working through social media may prove to be the key to our survival as a species as a result.
4. Content Nation presents an interesting discussion on the effects of irrigation on the San Joaquin Valley and the ancient civilization of Babylon. Although irrigation initially allowed Babylon to prosper, it also slowly increased the salinity of the soil, leading to Babylon's eventual downfall. You seem convinced that social media will help to prevent and solve problems such as this one. Could it also be possible that social media is a problem such as this one? Could it be that the vast benefits of social media also come with a yet-unseen detriment that will destroy us? If so, how can we keep something as explosive as social media in check?
All evolutionary traits have in them the potential for future disaster. A moth that adapted its color to be darker in response to the soot that collected on trees near coal-burning factories, which happened in the UK in the industrial era, may have faced problems when pollution controls came into force. So even when there are constructive changes, they may not lead to pleasant consequences for every population in the long run.
What I suggest in Content Nation is that the strength in social media as a redefining force in structuring the DNA of society is that it enables far greater diversity in potential paths to survival. As people can use social media to form collaborative relationships rapidly on any scale, there are more likely to be more diverse and scalable responses to the challenges facing humankind. So, to use an example from the book, rather than give one species of potato to millions of people in a contiguous population, the distributed and contextual relationships established in social media are more likely to result in one person going to source "A" for their food, the other person to source "B", and so on. In the process of doing so people who see that centrally dictated mass-market solutions no longer work for them will be able to accelerate their ability to locate and use acceptable substitutes.
However, as you point out, this style of adaptation does not come without a price. While I use relatively gentle language in the book to talk about this, the truth seems to be that social media is about to become the most disruptive force in society since the explosion of printing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries - and far more. With printing, and, eventually, the telegraph, ideas and information could spread far more rapidly and efficiently than ever before. This lead to a proliferation of political and economic concepts being offered to people that created huge disruptions to society -and, sometimes, as in France during the Reign of Terror or all over Europe in 1848, complete breakdown of governments and social structures. So it's quite possible that social media, with its ability to help humankind survive and thrive in the long run, may in fact trigger an era of economic, political and social breakdown, during which things look far more grim - and during which time it's possible that problems that require mass, centralized cooperation to solve go untended. I think that this is a given in many ways.
What comes out the other side of this transformation may not please us as contemporary humans. In becoming more like our ice age ancestors in our patterns of responses to evolutionary challenges, we will be leaving behind many of the patterns and responses of the past five to ten thousand years. In the short run, the mass-produced consumer society is likely to change, and is already changing, in response to the opportunities provided by people expressing their needs more efficiently to suppliers and suppliers responding more efficiently. Mass production as a market strength is being replaced by mass understanding. How long can China continue to grow on the back of slave labor? Certainly not as long as Babylon lasted. The markets themselves will change, enabling more efficient local and global responses to needs that distribute wealth more directly to market participants who create value. The villager who raises crops efficiently will have access to more markets more directly than ever before, and will be more at liberty to use sustainable agriculture methods to ensure that they are looking out for their personal well-being in the long run. With the ability to sustain their way of life, there will be fewer people willing to give up a sustainable living for slave labor. Over-cheap consumer goods will die because we won't be able to afford to make junk anymore.
If you think of the final scene of Content Nation, I intentionally leave out a lot of details, but I think what we wind up with is a highly mobile society, less invested in mass market goods for living a satisfactory life, less prone to the distractions of centralized messages, more focused on living in the moment and constantly in touch with a vast wealth of global and local information. We will act more as a global society, based not on centralized global institutions but on global, personal awareness in very specific contexts. Thinking of how the United States of America was at first simply a confederation of highly independent states, the long-term outlines and potential of Content Nation may seem unlikely at this time. And, as seen in the history of the U.S., violent and painful confrontations, lasting centuries, will be needed for the benefits of a new social structure to take form. But in the end, this is the transformation that we will need to face humandkind's ultimate challenges. We can go the way of Babylon, or we can go the way of the ice age hunter. Circumstances seem to push us towards the hunter's model, so I do argue that social media's ability to make the hunter's model work more effectively is the one that's likely to succeed overall.
5. Are there any final thoughts you'd like to offer us?
Social media is such a pervasive tool these days that it's easy to lose sight of how important its influence is becoming. The traditional media rattles on, but on a click by click basis we are changing human history. Humankind will simply never be the same. We are truly at the beginning of the most drastic changes to human civilization in over five thousand years, presaged by the rise of pervasive print publications and perfected through the truly pervasive ability for any human with access to the Web to be a global or local publisher with extraordinary personal and collective influence. Some of the changes being put into motion by Content Nation are obvious, some subtle, but they are all profound, with a depth that seems to creep up on us until key events reveal how far its influence has come. I think that 2010 will be a turning point for social media, a time when people start expressing themselves with more confidence that their power through social media will turn the tide of major events. A traditional Chinese curse goes, "May you live in interesting times." These will be certain to be interesting times, though I hope not as a curse.
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