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.

  • http://www.crowdsurfing.net Martin Thomas

    Being effective in social media means giving up absolute control but not abdicating all control. The smartest operators (& I would also include Nike in this list) shape, nurture, facilitate, inspire, encourage … they don’t simply sit back and wait for something to happen.

  • David Mclean

    He seems confused in his article and fails to recognise a few obvious truths. For example;

    “There is nevertheless, an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity for brands in this space, and it’s this: for the first time, it’s possible to find the people who care about the same things you do; to listen to what they are saying, to converse with them directly, to find out what they really want, and to provide it directly. To do this, brands must listen, brands must be responsive and, most importantly, must have something tangible to talk about.”

    Basically, he’s saying social media offers brands an opportunity to segrate an audience into sectors which can engaged with. This is correct, but it’s far from extraordinary and unprecedented.

    As an example, if I were a heavy metal record label, my audience is already clearly segregated and easy to engage with via specialist media, festivals, venues etc. And engagement through each is tried, tested and easy.

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  • Nick Bailey

    Thanks for the interesting and rigorous analysis! However what I’m arguing (perhaps ineffectively, given your response), is not that there is no equivalent media value to ideas expressed and shared in social spaces – far from it. My problem is with the term ‘Social Media’ itself, because it encourages clients and agencies to think of social spaces as simply another media channel, leading to unrealistic expectations and often ineffective work. As I round off the piece by saying, I prefer the term ‘earned media’, firstly because it’s platform agnostic, but most importantly because it makes clear that we’re ceding control of our message to others. I’d hope that ultimately the term ‘social media’ will become redundant, as ‘new media’ did 10 years or so ago, as a useful catch-all term for a while but one which ultimately proved itself to be unfit for purpose. I’d argue that marketing in social spaces has more in common with PR than paid media, where the objective is to influence others to create influence: to generate earned media value.

    The real power that social platforms offer is the ability to target this influence like never before – I take David Mclean’s point that we’ve always been able to identify and engage with broad audiences, however the innovation lies in our ability to identify influential individuals and talk directly to them, and encourage them to spread your brand’s message through their networks. Much of Nike’s success has been down to patient, direct communication with brand advocates – earning media value, rather than treating social as a media channel.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/koningwoning koningwoning

    @Nick – I agree that clients tend to see Social MEdia as just another form of media. But if we suddenly find the black swan – we should not call it a Wans simply because it would otherwise confuse people who think swans can only be white. We have the duty to educate our clients time & time again.

    Besides , I think that Forrester actually has proven that you should not go for the people who influence a lot of people… but to influence those who are seen to be thought leaders by their peers. So influence a multitude of small meaningful conversations instead of a few less meaningful conversations

    Just saying