The social media revolution (in 15 minutes)


Clusters, worms and Facebook
August 7, 2007, 2:43 pm
Filed under: My stuff

I think it is time to try and pull together some thinking on the whole social network issue. I first (rather belatedly) clocked that the creation of networks was going to be an important area to watch back in March – and also got excited about the potential of Ning things to create social networks for ideas in May. However – that was in BFE (Before Facebook Explosion) time. The explosion of Facebook has really kicked things along and stimulated some interesting discussion as highlighted in some recent posts by Steve Rubel and BL Ochman.

One thing is clear. Even if the Facebook bubble bursts, some sort of watershed appears to have been crossed that is affording us some clues to the future landscape of the social media world as well as to the likely behaviours of the social media citizen.

There seem to be three patterns emerging:

  • On-line social clusters will be the new media (and the old media will dissolve)
  • Content will be floating and worm-like (a medium in its own right)
  • The emergence of “The One Place” – a utility type provider / manager all aspects of a social media citizen’s on-line persona

On-line clusters
The online social network / community is probably going to be the basic building block of the new social media landscape. On-line communities or networks will be the new media (as Steve Rubel implies) however, this analogy is rather limiting in that they will be much more than this and the concept of the media as an institution will dissolve. Note: I don’t count Facebook as a social network in this respect. Facebook isn’t actually a social network – it is a facilitator of social networking. This is an important distinction to bear in mind. In fact social network or community is not a good word for these new things – I see them more as on-line social clusters.

Lots of things will trend towards being cluster-like and their characteristics are starting to become apparent – just take a look at the sorts of thing people are starting to do with Ning and at the recent explosion in popularity of Facebook groups. These new clusters will be the things anyone wishing to engage in any form of mass communication will have to understand and interact with.

There will be lots of them – many many more than there are currently media outlets. They will have different types and flavours – but the chances are that any one individual will only have between eight to twelve that they regularly interact with or consider themselves a part of. It is likely that long tail shape will apply to the distribution of clusters i.e. a few mass clusters and an almost infinite number of much smaller ones. Given this, it is highly unlikely that what we currently call a brand will be able to create or sustain a mass cluster – but they can have a role in feeding them with information and facilitating their development, to an extent. Individual old media outlets will have to decide whether to make a bid to transition to being a mass cluster – or to instead focus on the production of stand-alone, wriggly content (see below). For some of the big media brands it may be possible that they could make the transition – and possibly also for some media in specialised segments – but for most this will be too big an ask. In most instances a cluster (or combination of clusters) will emerge that will absorb the function of most old media.

Floating wriggly content
Information and content will be a very fluid and wriggly thing. It will not be contained within or owned by the things that made it. Instead it will be sent out to fend for itself, creating a sea of content worms which social clusters will draw their nourishment from. The value or relevance of a individual content worm will be determined by the extent to which it is absorbed by social clusters which will then process it and circulate it amongst their members. Some clusters may also be reasonably prolific in feeding their own content back into the stream. Content and information will have become a medium in itself and mediation will be performed within social clusters – hence why the concept of media in an institutional sense, will dissolve.

Most content will be free (as in no cost, rather, than free to roam), and as we already are seeing, producers of content will be pretty much everybody and everything. However, content which is able to collectively turn itself into a brand, or which has other premium or unique features, will be able to levy money from the clusters attracted to it. The challenge for the media (defined as the institutions that currently produce content) will be how to sufficiently establish a branded value to their output, which combined with any value they may have been able to create from clusterising, will allow them to cover the costs of content production.

The One Place
It is already clear that we can’t expect anyone to become a social media citizen, if doing so involves managing a whole portfolio of stuff (however shiny and new some of them may be). The Facebook phenomena shows the inherent attraction in the ability to aggregate a whole bunch of things (twittery, bloggy, message-like and sharing things) on one platform. It is also well known that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has already stated his intention to be “the one place on the web you go to” (or was it the first place you go to?).

One thing is for sure, there will need to be one of these if we are going to make this social media thing available for normal people rather than techy types. Its role will to be the personal hub that is used to manage and aggregate all incoming content, issue all outgoing content as well as be the home for on-line identity and social interaction. It will be the tool people use to interact with and become a part of social clusters. It is strange that we haven’t got further towards one of these yet. Most of the offerings out there are either rooted in content production and distribution (e.g. blogs), content aggregation (news readers, start-pages etc) or social networking – but perhaps it is because the idea of one individual being both a producer, consumer and participant all at the same time is so new that no-one has really got their heads around it yet.

The rapid up-take of Facebook, compared to the other potential candidates for “The One Place” – such as feed-readers, start pages, social search and bookmarking sites – indicates that this mythical place will probably emerge out of the social networking space and that networking will be at its core and that all these other functions will fold themselves into it. Perhaps Facebook will become It.

Opinion aggregators
The one thing that sits outside all of this concerns the function of mediation – content validation and comprehension. Social clusters will probably act as content mediators to a large extent – i.e. deciding and promoting what is relevant, true and accurate. However sceptical we may be about “old” media’s ability to be an effective content mediator, the fact that we are bypassing much of the traditional gatekeepers does challenge us to develop something that better perfoms the role of content mediation. Andrew Keen has recently made the point, albeit in terms of a rather flawed and theatrical lament, that getting rid of cultural gatekeepers all together could have unpleasant consequences. Perhaps there will be a need for a separate something that acts not so much as an aggregator of content, but an aggregator of opinion – since the ability to have a way of aggregating opinion has been cited by James Surowiecki as one of the necessary conditions for accessing the Wisdom of Crowds. Perhaps becoming an opinion aggregator gives a clue as to the future direction for old media wishing to clusterise itself.

So there it is, clusters, content worms, the mythical One Place and opinion aggregators.

 

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[...] their own houses within this infrastructure. It will also encourage the development of what I call social clusters – especially the large number of small or niche [...]

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[...] is (behalve voor klanten). Helaas is die oplossing er nog niet. Facebook zou graag die ‘one place’ zijn. Maar dan nog zit je niet altijd achter je computer en wachten we dus nog op een goede device [...]

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[...] is something else I have written that is relevant to this – in terms of charting the future digital [...]

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