Friday, April 3, 2009

John Blossom and the Rise of Social Media

Your innocuous tweet counts as "publishing." A simple text message reminding your wife to buy a gallon of milk also is publishing, as is the e-mail to your boss, according to social media expert John Blossom. In small portions, these forms of communication are quite tame, but when multiplied a billion times over a day, they will change the ways we live and think while threatening to upend how the news is delivered and consumed.

The most fascinating idea in Blossom's book Content Nation is the belief the the rise of social media and user-generated web sites are, in fact, not a new development, but actually a return to the genuine roots of human interaction. (In the Internet tradition of open-sourcing, Blossom's book is available to read in full on his web site. Click here to read.)

Isn’t social media just another way of saying that humans are by their very nature publishing beings? Well, that’s probably true. But perhaps the question might be asked a somewhat different way: Did we get sidetracked from being natural publishers and are we just getting back to our roots? Did we have a few relatively brief millennia in which a few people controlled communications to masses of people and are those of us in more developed nations just beginning to rediscover our natural abilities to create and share content without such a centralized authority? In other words, if what we’re seeing with the emergence of Content Nation is not something new at all but rather a return to something very basic in human society – namely, the ability of people to communicate with groups of peers without highly centralized control of publishing technology being a major factor – then perhaps society itself is going to undergo major changes as the result of such capabilities.

The democratic leveling aspect of the Internet is a well-chronicled idea, yet some large media outlets, themselves in the midst of declining revenues and battling transformations from print to the web, frame their difficulties in frightful terms rather than a positive evolution in human communication. Some likelanguage maven and left-wing social critic Noam Chomsky would say it is because the ruling elites fear losing the immense power that once came from the exclusivity of the printing press. In his book, Media Control, he writes, "People have to be atomized and segregated and alone. They're not supposed to organize, because then they might be something beyond spectators of action. They might actually be participants if many people with limited resources could get together to enter the political arena. That's really threatening."

It is instructive to analyze the mainstream media's coverage of the music industry's problems since the appearance of file-sharing sites starting with Napster in 1998. The prevailing wisdom to this day is that the record companies failed to realize the shift from CDs to digital and saw their revenues and influence rapidly decline. Yet, when the media covers itself, this tone is rarely evident even though one could argue that the print media made the same fateful errors -- except in their case, making content free. The San Francisco Chronicle's Phil Bronstein recently admitted, in a quite honest posting on his blog, how the nascent power of the Internet was exciting in 1992, but like others he failed to see its long-term future. The frequent Commonwealth Club contributor even apologized saying, "It was a failure of imagination."

That lack of foresight by large media corporations may have already done too much damage for them to ever exert the power they once had even with mega-acquisitions of social media sites such as News Corp gobbling up MySpace and today's viral rumor of Google purchasing Twitter.

Blossom, who will discuss the Brave New World of social media Monday at the Commonwealth Club, predicts that the artificial scarcity of media companies "will give way through social media to a culture more focused on identifying and exploiting the natural abundance of human insight and innovation rapidly and efficiently, enabling more people to collaborate on projects large and small that respond to the threats and opportunities in a changing world more effectively.

There have already been numerous occurrences of bloggers shifting the attention of the traditional news cycle toward events left unexposed by the MSM. Bloggers hastened the demise of Dan Rather at CBS and highlighted former Florida Congressman Mark Foley's dalliances with pages. Some observers claim that the incessant ire that liberal bloggers inflicted on President Bush and the subsequent election of Barack Obama can be tied to the Internet and social media techniques. Even the ubiquity of cell phone cameras tightened the focus of the alleged police abuse on Oscar Grant earlier this year at an Oakland BART station. Without such technology in the hands of numerous BART passengers that early New Year's morning, the thrust of the media coverage might have been much different and focused more on official versions of events.

It can be argued that the media's function as a communication outlet is directly tied to political power. Blossom's book foresees the unraveling of that paradigm as the pure desire of the public is made more evident once it is unhinged from traditional media filters.

It will become ever harder to communicate political themes and objectives that don't have authentic support from everyday people. If the era of television ushered in mass communications that enabled the selling of politicians like tubes of toothpaste, social media ushers in the era of politics in which most facts impacting politics and policies are known instantly and openly. Political victories go to politicians who know how to influence grass-roots political conversations most effectively -- again. Like many things in social media, the transformation that can come in political circles is less about technologies than it is about the ability of those technologies to scale rapidly and effectively to any level of human organization to build effective bonds between people.

In fact, we have already seen this phenomenon with the election of President Obama last November. His once-unimaginable defeat of both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain lends credence to Blossom's assertion that politicians will need to bypass traditional media filters and communicate more forthright with the public. The president recently has been criticized for using new web technologies to communicate directly to the people instead of through the MSM. During his first press conference, he called upon a reporter from the Huffington Post for his first question and frequently uses YouTube videos to present his positions to the public.

Instead, the Administration may be identifying the future of communication where the power of the press is decentralized into a billion pieces less likely to be manipulated by one powerful producer and, as Blossom says a return to the dawn of man where news was dispensed around the campfire and not from the top floor of a Manhattan skyscraper.

Social media expert and President of Shore Communications John Blossom will discuss the burgeoning power of the social media Monday at The Commonwealth Club of California. Click here for more information.

--Steven Tavares


Tessa said...

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Anglican Avenger said...

I've read elsewhere that one theory of the development of speech is that it emerged so that we could gossip, which would explain Twitter.

One question I have (which perhaps Mr. Blossom will answer) is: since oral material is, by definition, not preserved, how can one measure the true effect of preserved written communication vs. unpreserved oral communication?

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