Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Media has always been social

I participate in a new blog about social media. One of my fellow contributors (and the founder of the project) Justin Flitter left a video post which demanded a reply.

I have concerns that the novelty of 'social media' is overwhelming common sense and experience?

I hope the last thing you take out of my reply to Justin's post is any sort of Luddite view. It's just that I feel the discovery of access to media isn't such a novelty really for people who have had something to say and which they can articulate with at least a modicum of skill - mass media has to be fueled with content. In a way it is like a teenager discovering The Beatles today. New - but old.

I have to confess that I didn't really understand the central thesis of Justin's video. But some of his points stimulated the following thoughts of my own:

I have worked in social media all of my working life, since 1983 anyway. That may sound paradoxical but assuming broadcast or mass media isn't social or doesn't have a social dimension is false. In many ways broadcast media has more social dimensions to it than what we have come to describe as 'social media'.

In New Zealand TVNZ alone has the capacity to reach every household in the country. Our relatively homogenous and harmonious society is, in part, a direct consequence of this dynamic. Broadcast TV is a strong binding element in our society. It is, by definition, mainstream. The majority shared in the cultural conversation, albeit vicariously. I would venture that television programmes like Pukemanu, Close to Home, Gliding On, It's in the Bag, Top Town (the original) and the six o'clock news broadcast (and on an on) helped define our national sense of identity in very real ways. I don't consider this to be premised on the desire to have everybody conform. More like holding a mirror up to the audience.

It is too easy to write off broadcast media as 'one-way'. Paradoxically it is and it isn't. Given that advertising is essential to free-to-air television's survival broadcasters have a compulsive obsession with ratings. If the audience finds the content disagreeable it changes channels or switches off. Curiously enough Nielsen PeopleMeters are a 'listening campaign' and broadcasters pay close attention.

Your remarks about interpretation and meaning are also not exclusive to 'social media'. We all process information based on our experience of the world (both a priori and a posteriori), regardless of the source of the information. It is wrong to assume that every communication received from TV, say an advertisement, will be received in the same was as a matter of course by the entire audience. Television might be influential because it is TV, but even that dynamic is changing because TV exists a world where we now have a far greater portfolio of media. @aplusk is influential on Twitter but only because of his access to traditional media - That 70s Show and Punk'd (not to mention the tabloid press via his consort, the former Mrs Willis). Likewise Ellen Degeneres and Oprah. Broadcasters around the world are looking to the opportunities digital tools offer. They will have to learn new skills, to be sure, but they will.

Finally, to my initial point, as an advertising writer and designer I always believed I was having a conversation with the audience. Not the same kind of conversation as the one we would have over a coffee or a beer, but one that conformed to the timeless rules of engagement - be polite, be respectful, be interesting and share. I like to think my awards were compensation for that belief. Sure there are plenty of advertising messages that are rude and offensive (Harvey Norman are you listening), but the same is true on Twitter, Facebook and the bogosphere (sometimes in extremis). Mediated communication is a matter of degree. A standup comedian is having a conversation with the audience, but it is one that is rehearsed and the occasional heckler or interjection isn't a dialogue in the usual sense. A Papal speech probably talks directly to a believer - even if it is broadcast via TV or radio (or YouTube). Hey, Bob Dylan's music from the 60's talks to me - even though it was recorded decades ago.

Much as I am enjoying learning about the new tools we have at our disposal I don't think the principles of communication have ever been any different, and - so long as we are human - ever will be. The tools and dynamics are a little different but, since the invention of moveable type and the printing press, it has always been about giving voice to ideas. Being in print, or on the airwaves or Internet has never made the content a truth. The message will always trump the significance of the medium.