When is Media not Media? When it’s Social media

Social media wagon is packed full of mediaInteresting piece by Nick Bailey, a creative director at digital agency AKQA Amsterdam, on why he thinks social media isn’t really media at all.

He makes a lot of good points, but I think he is also wrong as he falls into the trap of trying to directly compared traditional media and social media and of course they are different in a great many ways.

He echoes what many say about social media at the start of his piece , i.e. that it is not like traditional media. He starts out by trying to define what it is not; it is not “paper, charcoal, pencil, canvas, paint” he came across at art school; and that it is not the print media, billboards, broadcast and traditional online media that he first encountered working in the ad industry.

Media, he says, was stuff you could see, hear and touch. It was what he used express ideas, which leads him to the problem he has with “what the word ‘media’ means when it has the word ‘social’ attached to it”.

He says that while we all agree that it is important, and that it is everywhere, “no-one seems able adequately to explain is how you make an idea out of it”.

Not sure about that. We see ideas made out of it every day. Whether they are hashtags, blogs, tweets or and invitation to share based around content. Look at the success of the recent Wispa launch on Facebook, which generated thousands of comments, or the thousands who told their stories via the Barack Obama #40dollars campaign. Words and pictures used to create stories that we go on to share.

But Bailey insists that you can’t see, hear, touch, taste or smell ‘social media’ and you can’t use it to express an idea. And you can’t do this he says because “social media it isn’t media at all”. He says this because unlike traditional media you can’t make social media do what you want:

“You can’t make other people do or say what you want. People talking about ideas online is not media, it’s plain old word-of-mouth.”

So really his issue and definition of media is with control? Media is only media if you can control it? If you can buy it: buy ad space, TV spots, banner ads and poster sites?

Control and ownership is one of the definitions of traditional media and lack of it is one of definitions of social media.

Control is certainly a big issue, but lack of it doesn’t disqualify social media as media.  That just makes it different.

And besides on that basis, the basis of control, are ads that we can spoof online or posters we can graffiti no longer media as control has been ceded? Or are they no longer media because they are assailed by a torrent of abusive comments and are forced offline?

It is certainly true that ideas need to be rigorously thought out. If they are not they can easily be lost control of as we have seen in recent months with Qantas and McDonald’s. Two brands both savaged on Twitter when social media campaigns when awry.

There’s also the issue that social media campaigns can, and often do, comprise numerous elements. It might be a video shared on a blog via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I’d say all elements here are social, but some you have more control over than others. Not every part of the social universe responds in the same way, but the general laws are the same.

The blog for instance could be one set up for the campaign, comments can be moderated, the video is one the brand creates, it is just what happens beyond that where control is ceded; beyond that where conversation might or might not be sparked.

As Bailey is right, you can not dictate what people share; what you can do though is provide the kindling required to spark a conversation, but you can’t make that conversation happen. Sometimes it simply doesn’t.

He also argues that the numbers that are often bandied around. The 800 million people on Facebook or the 500 million on Twitter are meaningless:

“People who talk a lot about Social Media like to talk about how extraordinary and unprecedented it is that there are 800 million people on Facebook. On one level they’re right…However, what these 800 million people are doing on Facebook…they are sending messages to their friends about what they are thinking, feeling or doing. They are showing each other stuff that that they like. They are having conversations. They are doing what the other 90% of the world’s population is doing offline. Facebook is a large collection of small interest groups, connected by Friendship, concerned first and foremost with people with whom they have a personal connection.

“It is no more meaningful to talk about a ‘Facebook audience’ of 800 million, than it is to talk about a ‘planet Earth audience’ of 8 billion. A brand is just one voice in the crowd, competing for attention with conversations that are generally more meaningful and more interesting, because they’re personal.”

Again, I think he has it wrong. As brands often become part of these conversations. They slip seamlessly into the stream and become part of the conversation. For instance last week I commented on a Universal Pictures promotional story that appeared in my stream on Facebook for a for a new release of Field of Dreams, which was generating a lot of positive conversation and likes. A simple placement not at all unlike a press ad but one that encourages people to share.

While we can debate over whether social media is media at all most agree, as does Bailey, that there is a “extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity for brands” to connect with people and the things that they are interested in and care about.

But even one of the successful examples he cites, Nike Football, and how it has been successful on Facebook sounds like a case study for why social media is media rather than why it is not:

“Nike…instead of pushing content out to an imaginary audience, the brand has earned a place in the conversations of millions of football fans, by responding directly and providing real access to athletes and real inside information on products and content the community cared about (for example previewing the ‘Write the Future’ TV spot on Facebook first).”

That sounds to me very much like Nike is controlling the message and its use of the medium; that Nike is running the show. I rest my case.