Thursday, July 30, 2009

Observations on the Social Media Landscape

This article also appears in

Web 2.0 is Like Being at Square 2.0
We can see some of the benefits of new media every day. Companies, associations and organizations are reaching out to engage, educate and sell to their publics. Information is finding new ways to bore through the firewalls of intolerant regimes. The lonely and the shut-ins have virtual life lines to the outside world. People are reconnecting, catching up and sharing news.

I’ve had some good experiences with new media, reaching "influencers" and gaining news placements. On the personal side, it’s been nice to reconnect with old friends and colleagues. Not long ago, I received a LinkedIn invitation from a friend who was in Cub Scout Pack 92 with me back in the fourth grade. Twitter is a different story, though. I'm still churning through sites in the hope that they can give me at least a 10 percent chance of reading something of actual interest.

That aside, it’s exciting to see new ideas and experimentation taking place. Yet, with the deluge of offers I receive for webinars, courses and books, you would think the self-proclaimed gurus have Web 2.0 all figured out. Every time I turn around, my e-mail in box fills with “must attend” events like Social Media Crash Course, New Media Boot Camp, Social Media and New Media Boot Camp, New Media PR Master Class, Writing for Social Media, Social Media Best Practices, Social Media PR Power Guide, Social Media for Disaster Response and Recovery, and Social Media Strategies. (Note to gurus: it is not a strategy – it’s a tactic.)

While there are people who have better technical skills and know more than others about these media, we’re a long way from fully grasping its potential and its potential consequences. Along the evolutionary continuum of social media, we’ve just left knuckle walking to stand upright. Like the Neanderthals, we’re bound to see lots of offshoots that dead end into oblivion.

Oblivion is where many in and around the media business say newspapers (and books and magazines) are headed. They may be right… eventually. I do read a lot of material electronically but I don’t want to give up the ability to turn the page of my hard copy. (I take some comfort knowing that the crystal ball keepers who manage the Star Trek franchise have, on several occasions, made books the perfect gift in the 23rd and 24th centuries.) Indeed, when it comes to media consumption (according to Ketchum’s Media Myths & Realities Survey, 2008), social networking sites, blogs, videocasts and podcasts combined don’t come close to local newspapers (or network or local or cable TV news).

As social and electronic media gain ground, however, it seems to be pushing other forms of communication to the rear. A growing number of people -- practically everyone I know in generations Y and Z -- will use Facebook, AIM or send a text message before they’d ever make a telephone call. This leads me to question the actual use of the term “social” in social media. Certainly, it’s safer to write a message than to use one’s voice. Words can be chosen and rewritten before sending. Direct confrontation is avoided. But this is the opposite of social interaction. It’s remote, it’s disembodied. From the Random House dictionary (the 10 pounder on my bookshelf), social “pertains to, devoted to, or characterized by friendly companionship or relations.” Merriam-Webster (on-line) defines social as “marked by or passed in pleasant companionship with one's friends or associates.”

Like friends, music and art, a mix of the old and the new can make the picture complete.
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