The definition of Social Media according to Wikipedia is:
Social media is content created by people using highly accessible and scalable publishing technologies. At its most basic sense, social media is a shift in how people discover, read and share news, information and content. It’s a fusion of sociology and technology, transforming monologues (one to many) into dialogues (many to many) and is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. Social media has become extremely popular because it allows people to connect in the online world to form relationships for personal and business. Businesses also refer to social media as user-generated content (UGC) or consumer-generated media (CGM).
It sounds perfectly reasonable. Social Media gives us all the power to become publishers. To distribute our content and interact over them. To a certain extend this is true. But if you think that the world is waiting for you and your content think again. It isn’t that easy. There are certain rules you need to understand and follow.
While distribution scales endlessly, your ability to interact will not
Wikipedia is right about the scalable publishing technologies. Anyone can now create, publish and distribute content across the web. The technologies involved allow you to reach out to audiences far beyond your social network. There is a problem with this scalability. While your content can be distributed endlessly, your ability to interact over that content cannot. In a sense many of the current successful web 2.0 companies try to scale down this endless stream of content and conversations. Our human limitations do not allow us to follow 10.000 people, process millions of pieces of content and interact over all of them.
Technology tries to help us bring order into this chaos by allowing us to broadcast without the need of interaction (Twitter), limit content and discussions to people we trust (Friendfeed), build up a network of friends we want interaction with (Facebook) or attempt to capture the conversation in one place (Disqus). While technology has found us easy to use and scalable distribution, we do not have proper solutions yet for scaling down our interactions. Search for signal to noise and you will find many different startups and services trying to solve our human limitations wrt scale. This is not a new problem. Google has been working on this for years. They build their search engine and PageRank to try and provide a better signal to noise ratio. It is impossible for us to see all content on the web, so we use search engines to find us the right content.
Social Media adds another dimension to this scalability. It gives us not only more content but also more interaction over that content. Needless to say that this leads to an unprecedented nr of startups trying to provide us new methods and technology to deal with this endless stream of content we now call Social Media.
Social Media isn’t always democratic, it is a game that has winners, losers and cheaters
Anyone can become a celebrity. The past few years of YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, blogging and Idols have proven that anyone can become a hero, right? Hardly. Of course there are excellent examples of people coming from nowhere into stardom, but for every 1 success there are a million failures. When it comes to online distribution and scale, you need to understand that while the technology itself is perfectly scalable, the actual game is a game with winners, losers an cheaters. There are those that have worked extremely hard, for many years, to become a celebrity (In the Tech world people like Robert Scoble and Louis Gray would fit into this category). These people have been providing constant value and interaction to a community and have earned respect and a voice from that.
Then there are those that understand the dynamics behind the game and seek an audience by taking a few shortcuts here and there. Instead of slowly building up an audience by providing constant quality, they actively seek high visibility through different channels and circling around other celebrities. Getting noticed by a person or channel representing a large community will help build your own community of people you can interact with. Needless to say you do need to provide valuable content in order to get noticed. Bottom line is that it takes a lot of work and a thorough understanding of the dynamics of Social Media to become a well known community member. Just because publishing has become easy doesn’t mean that you will be heard.
And there are those that become instant celebrities because they cheat. If you are thinking about becoming a web rock star yourself. Be prepared to either invest all of your time for the next few years in publishing relevant an valuable content and slowly building up a community of followers. Or cheat, buy yourself into high volume traffic without actually having to do anything relevant to earn such a position (I suggest becoming a recommended Twitter user for example).
Don’t get fooled by the ease to publish. Social Media isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work to interact
I see the following type of conversation pop up all the time on Friendfeed. A user observes that while he is active on the community, the content he publishes doesn’t draw a lot of attention (=discussion). This is the perfect way to start interaction on Friendfeed btw 😉 . It takes only a few seconds before the community starts to give helpful hints. Bottom line in most cases seem to be ‘give and you shall receive’. In other words. If you want people to interact with you, start by interacting with them. In order to become a respectable member of any community, you not only need to produce relevant and valuable content for that community. You also need to add value via interaction. Give, without expecting something in return. While this makes perfect sense, it doesn’t make things easier. Not everyone is as outspoken. There is always a small subset of the community that is responsible for a large part of the interactions. It’s hard to make your voice count. And while the technology does level the playing field (anyone can be or interact with a celebrity), it doesn’t automatically mean that you are heard. It takes time, effort, and a lot of positive energy to build your own voice within a community.
Some random thoughts
Social Media provides us endless possibilities to create, mash up, publish and interact over content. The one thing that holds this endless scalability back is the human factor. We simply can’t deal with a universe where there are no boundaries. As soon as we enter this world we set a playing field by following a specific set of people, signing up for certain services, interact in specific places, search, filter and share specific content. It help us to create order in a chaotic world. The biggest effect Social Media might have is that we will use it to make our world smaller instead of bigger. Quality over quantity. We might see a trend where networks will become smaller instead of bigger. Where content and interactions will become highly focused instead of widespread. Where geoposition and localization will be more important than globalization. Where interaction with people you have actually met will become more important than people you have stumbled across online.
Just like in the physical world 😉