Social, not media


The Dubliner was packed to hear Tom Dahill play traditional Irish songs most of the crowd knew the words to sing along to. Some were up dancing a traditional Ceili to one side. In between the songs and a chance to chat with my girlfriend Liz I bumped into someone working the Social Media scene. We chatted about the craft of this other scene, the one you’re in now, and the changes filtering through. The setting may not seem important to my profession as a consultant to small businesses in this art, but it was as critical as the message.

Social Media may be a new and developing internet thang, but what remains important is the social, not the media. I’ve had several conversations recently about the people, not the technology, and the ideas, not the rules of the game. There is an evolution in the works and it’s one that is worth discussing more widely.

Social Media, as a concept, is the oldest form of “media” there is. People have always relied on word of mouth, or buzz, to promote their business or simply keep themselves from being lonely. It has always existed in a greater community of people, sometimes focused on a common interest in certain foods or Irish music or whatever people enjoy. What’s changed recently are the tools that make connections to a larger world easier.

A strong focus on the connections, not the fancy new tools, appears to be the key to a business that wants to make the best use of this new “media.”

This may seem as obvious as a chilly day in November, but it’s worth repeating. When the new tools came along a lot of people latched onto them right away as something either inspiring or trendy that appeared to be in need of rules of their own. It’s a process of working out a social contract or a system by which people can join in and contribute. The newness of the Internet compelled many to proclaim that very new standards were essential, often showing up as jargon and heuristics for general behavior.

While Twitter and Facebook have their own specific appeal, neither is all that new in the grand scheme of things. The earliest days of connection saw the development of USEnet alongside ARPAnet, the “back roads” of connection set up with discussion boards and chat systems that were as social as anything today. People haven’t changed. Everything merged into “Internet” (thanks in large part to the efforts of Rep. Al Gore, yes) and larger centralized websites became the new “media” but the key is the same social behavior that we, as humans, really crave.

It’s a gradual evolution as more and more people join in the new ways of being social. The post-USEnet wave, the one that keeps hitting my conversations, seems much less interested in the coolness of the developing systems and much more focused on why people get into it at all.

There are “rules” to using these systems, detached from their origins, that have worked their way into the social contract. For example, it’s commonly said that Twitter should be used as a community of its own and that no more than 1/4 of all tweets should be about promoting a business – the rest chatty statements about personality and stories circulating around as part of the general fun. It seems harmless enough, and every social system does develop its own contract. But where did this come from?

Conversations I’ve had center around the “gurus” or “experts” who promote these rules and often shun those of us who ignore them. I prefer to set up experiments, like Barataria, with a carefully designed hypothesis that can be tested with hard data. It’s the engineer in me.  I’ve found, using the Twitter example, that ideas and news about events can easily make up all of a Twitter stream and you’ll have strong readership. It can be used to create a community of your own, something I have to thank all of you for being a part of. Twitter, I’ve found, is deeply flawed as a platform for community and functions much better as a news ticker – a point of contact with new content.

The medium is changing. New people are arriving. Are we greeting them and giving them what they want, which is information and connections, or are we insisting that they meet an arbitrary standard with murky origins?

To understand where Social Media is going we have to take a step back and see why people use it in the first place. It’s nothing more than an organized supplement to what people have been doing since the dawn of civilization. It fills a basic need, which is the connection to the world around us. There’s no one answer for everyone as to how to do it “right.” When it’s well and truly owned by all the members of its community there are no “experts” – just humble “practitioners” who are constantly learning and refining their craft.

I wish I could play and sing as well as Tom Dahill does. Tom reads his crowd and responds, giving us all what we want for a great evening as we sing or dance along. That’s what makes a great medium for community – and a lot of fun. We can all learn a lot from him.