Are We There Yet? Social Media's Perpetual Evolution
Social media is not a passing fad, but neither is it engraved in stone. Already the latest article of faith--that the ultimate marketing message is the one a person shares with his circle--is shattering because more users are being paid to "Like." Social media is more a sandstorm of passing fads, individually ephemeral but collectively an inexorable force. So observes Bob Guccione Jr. in his second BYTE Me column.
Last summer, a friend of mine, the head of the media department at a large, global investment bank, invited me to his house for dinner with some of his top clients. At one point he asked me to say a few words, which I took to mean--perhaps, in retrospect, incorrectly--as "please deliver a seemingly endless address on the future of media." Which I did.
The first thing I said is, social media isn't social. It's the exact opposite--it's anti-social. It's human beings not engaging each other, hiding behind the pretense of engagement. And then I said no one can sustain making money going against the grain of human nature.
Don't get me wrong. I realize that some of the most successful new companies of the last several years are, in one form or another, from Facebook to Zygna, social media ones. But the biggest mistake we seem to make regarding new media is to invariably believe that whatever snapshot we see in front of us is engraved in granite and will never change. So when a trend spawns, especially one marketers can quickly define and articulate and therefore feel they understand how to monetize forever, people want to believe they've reached the top of the mountain, and the view is set, and belongs exclusively to those who are there.
The latest article of such faith, for instance, is the conviction that the ultimate marketing message is the one a person shares with their circle. But this is already disintegrating, as it becomes obvious that since people are getting paid to "like" Coke, or GM, or whatever is squeezed through to them, they discover they like it very much and improbably often. They like the check, that's not in doubt.
Unlike all media to date, which has evolved slowly, steadily, from word-of-mouth to hand-created books tightly controlled by churches and kings, to the Guttenberg press, to mass-printed media and broadcasting, new media accelerates too fast to either properly comprehend or master. It's gloriously unpredictable and unknowable. In our attempt to hide the fact we don't know where media is going, we mistakenly try to assure everyone that the latest iteration is the finished product we must commit all our attention to. Ironically, that's the opposite of the forward thinking it postures to be. It's as if, having climbed the mountain from the base of Neanderthal grunts and cave paintings to the pinnacle of human expression, we're now tumbling head over heels down the other side, grabbing at anything we can.
Trends, by definition, change. Human nature really doesn't. We love novelty--while it's novel. Technology has exponentially sped up the gestation period of what's new and surprising, so, in a business sense, the novelty of something is not to be relied on.
What is important is the aspect of each perpetually morphing medium that is timelessly connected to human instinct. Facebook is more or less your fridge door digitalized, pictures of people important to you--comforting like the lights of bouys on a dark sea--and baby shower notices and shared affirmations like fortune cookie notes. Facebook's strength, when it's all boiled down, is not so spectacular; it's merely the virtual recreation of a town square where friends, who actually know each other and have a real intimacy, gather. It's not, in the end, the phony assumption that cajoling those friends to hand each other product samples will work.
We keep waiting for the paint of new media to dry. It never will. The Internet is too limitless to map future borders of communication. We feel pressured to say we understand where media is settling, and so give undue and false importance to companies and platforms that are just momentary reflections of a moving light. We want to aggrandize photo sharing as a cultural revolution, when really it's just people doing what they used to do on a smaller scale, through the mail. We want to believe that Twitter created the Arab Spring, but it didn't, any more than cell phones did, and not as much as--old school though it is--angry, determined, brave people talking to and inspiring each other.
Social media is not a passing fad; it's more a sandstorm of passing fads, individually ephemeral but collectively an inexorable force. I believe what we know as social media today is going to shatter, like a giant crystal bowl falling on the ground, into millions of much more defined micro and nano groups, which will coagulate around specific interests--a football team, a book club, an ideology, a type of wine--and, within an interest, be built around a single, instigating individual who pulls in friends who share the common enthusiasm. Those social media cells will be engaged and purposeful and very alive, constantly evolving and re-energizing. Those will be worth advertising to.
And I predict the biggest revelation in the advertising industry in the near future is going to be that ads work best when not embedded in material a person is trying to absorb or enjoy, but when kept separate from the content. Attached, yes, but not bred into it like a gene-splicing experiment. Unintrusive and undistracting, the right advertising will blend in seamlessly and organically, and be more retained by the viewer.