Last week I read an article on Memeburn that really bothered me, The demise of social media and the return of mass media. I don’t want to pick on anyone, but I’ve seen too many similar articles in the last few months, and I think people are falling victim to the very phenomena that they are reporting. I’d therefore like to take issue with the notion that “social media is dead,” while agreeing with the observation that there’s an enormous amount of “social distribution,” and a real and growing divide between the engaged audience and those who simply push around pieces of media that they barely take time to interact with.
One of the first sources mentioned to back up the assertion of social media’s demise in that article is the recent report Who Says What to Whom on Twitter, which found that 50% of Tweets are produced by only 20,000 elite Twitter users, a mere 0.05% of the 42 million user follower graph as of July 2009. The argument goes that because half of all tweets are from this population of elites, Twitter is no different than any other form of mass media, where by definition a tiny portion of elites create what is consumed by the masses.
I saw so many people retweeting this on Twitter, but not once did I see anyone point out that this also means that at least 50% of tweets consumed were not produced by this elite group. When you look at it that way, Twitter might start to seem a little less mass media. I started to wonder what this report actually said, and came to the conclusion that most people who tweeted the article probably hadn’t even read it. I did. Here are a few choice excerpts (emphasis is mine):
…although ordinary users collectively introduce by far the highest number of URLs, members of the elite categories are far more active on a per-capita basis. [Section 3.3.3, 3rd paragraph]
The results of the previous section provide qualified support for the conventional wisdom that audiences have become increasingly fragmented. Clearly, ordinary users on Twitter are receiving their information from many thousands of distinct sources, most of which are not traditional media organizations—even though media outlets are by far the most active users on Twitter, only about 15% of tweets received by ordinary users are received directly from the media. [Section 4, 1st paragraph]
Interestingly, however, we also note that the total number of URLs retweeted by bloggers (465k) is vastly outweighed by the number retweeted by ordinary users (46M); thus in spite of the much greater per-capita activity, their overall impact is still relatively small. [Section 4, 3rd paragraph]
In total, the population of intermediaries is smaller than that of the users who rely on them, but still surprisingly large, roughly 490K, the vast majority of which (484K, or 99%) are classified as ordinary users, not elites. To illustrate the difference, we note that whereas the top 20K elite users collectively account for nearly 50% of attention, the top 10K most-followed ordinary users account for only 5%. [Section 4.1, paragraph 4]
In particular, we find that although audience attention has indeed fragmented among a wider pool of content producers than classical models of mass media, attention remains highly concentrated, where roughly 0.05% of the population accounts for almost half of all posted URLs. [Section 6, 1st paragraph]
Second, we find considerable support for the two-step flow of information—almost half the information that originates from the media passes to the masses indirectly via a diffuse intermediate layer of opinion leaders, who although classified as ordinary users, are more connected and more exposed to the media than their followers. [Section 6, 1st paragraph]
We also find that different types of content exhibit very different lifespans: media-originated URLs are disproportionately represented among short-lived URLs while those originated by bloggers tend to be over-represented among long-lived URLs. Finally, we find that the longest-lived URLs are dominated by content such as videos and music, which are continually being rediscovered by Twitter users and appear to persist indefinitely. [Section 6. 1st paragraph]
While many of these excerpts seemingly support a clarification of the term “social media” as “social distribution of media,” I think they clearly illustrate that a detailed reading of this report does not paint a picture consistent with the idea that Twitter is a broadcast network resembling traditional mass media distribution.
Next comes the assertion that “very few people write blogs or produce any type of media these days.” I suppose in the absolute sense that’s true. It’s much easier to share content that someone else has produced or click a like button, and we’ve all seen the studies that show that 80% of content is produced by 20% of users (or something like that). However, I’ll argue that clicking a like button or sharing content is a fundamental part of what social media is all about: engagement. @mikecane on Twitter summed it up better than I probably would, in less than 140 characters of an original tweet [hint: content creation]
But let’s go back to that notion that “very few people” are creating content. I’ll challenge the idea that social media is new, and if it doesn’t work out we’ll “go back to” the “traditional” mass media, i.e. broadcast. Content creation by ordinary people–storytelling, word of mouth, local music, theatre or other performances–have been a part of human culture since prehistoric times, the rise of mass media starting only relatively recently in the 19th century. Internet has given us the tools to access grassroots entertainment in ways that weren’t possible before.
Certain types of community generated digital content may be waning (and I think that’s an arguable statement), but others are thriving. One oft-sited example of this (and perhaps the only real example I’ve seen anyone put forward) comes from the Pew Internet Social Media and Young Adults report and Technorati State of the Blogosphere 2010, both of which seemed to indicate that blogging is declining. However, at least one author contests that interpretation, and those who actually read the Pew report will know that it showed that blogging in older demographics had slightly increased. It’s telling that Tumblr growth is skyrocketing, and although some of that growth is likely due to mainstream media jumping on the bandwagon, much of the qualitative analysis shows growth from new geographical areas and population segments, i.e. young people discovering Tumblr. (Take the time, watch the video.)
Anyone who thinks social media is dead need look no farther than Rebecca Black’s Friday video, which in just over a month has amassed almost 100 million views on YouTube (95,240,905 views as I’m typing this draft). This sensation is about as far from mainstream media as you can get–radio stations wouldn’t even play her song. Bitterly derided by a music industry shaken up by the stunning success of an ordinary teen, and subject to an extraordinary number of Internet parodies and cruel jokes, the song struck a chord with the average viewer and has led to hundreds of covers of ordinary people, school and church groups singing the song. A YouTube search for “Rebecca Black Friday Cover” turns up over 23’000 hits. If that doesn’t qualify as social media, then honestly, I don’t know what does. Go check out this great post by Mike Cane to see the evidence if you don’t believe me.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that the people talking about how social media is dead and broadcast media is thriving can be primarily considered part of what’s known as “mass media.” Maybe like certain political leaders, they’re just telling us what they want us to believe, regardless of whether it’s actually true. If you listen to some of the active players in the “social media circuit” you might get a different perspective. I was really impressed by this video of 13 year-old Benni Cinkle, “that girl in pink,” from the Rebecca Black video. She “gets it” in a way that many so-called media pundits don’t, and she’s speaking to her audience and inviting them to engage with her in a far more savvy way than many of those “media experts” do.
What should you take away from all this? This article is long enough already, but I haven’t even begun to mention some of the other amazing examples of how ordinary people are communicating with each other in ways heretofore not possible, such as fan fiction communities or citizen involvement in journalism, recent examples of which are the on-the-ground reporting of ordinary citizens in the Middle East or in Japan. If you think that social media is dead, perhaps you’re just playing into the hands of mass media, pushing around bits of content that you aren’t actually engaging with yourself. If so you’re missing out on what is undoubtedly the biggest and most real revolution since the invention of the printing press.