Beyond Social Media

Consider the possibility that “social media” is a crock.

Or at least bear with that thought through Defrag, which takes place in Denver over today and Thursday, and for which the word “social” appears seventeen times in the agenda. (Perspective: “cloud” appears three times, and “leverage” twice.)

What prompts the crock metaphor is this survey, to which I was pointed by this tweet from Howard Rheingold. (I don’t know if the survey is by students of Howard’s Digital Journalism Workspace class, though I assume so.)

While the survey is fine for its purposes (mostly probing Twitter-based social media marketing) and I don’t mean to give it a hard time, it brings up a framing issue for social media that has bothered me for some time. You can see it in the survey’s first two questions: What Social Media platforms do you use? and How often are you on social media sites?

The frame here is real estate. Or, more precisely, private real estate. Later questions in the survey assume is that social media is something that happens on private platforms, Twitter in particular. This is a legitimate assumption, of course, and that’s why I have a problem with it. That tweeting it is a private breed of microblogging verges on irrelevance. Twitter is now as necessary to tweeting as Google is to search. It’s a public activity under private control.

Missing in action is credit to what goes below private platforms like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook — namely the Net, the Web, and the growing portfolio of standards that comprise the deep infrastructure, the geology, that makes social media (and everything else they support) possible.

Look at four other social things you can do on the Net (along with the standards and protocols that support them): email (SMTP, POP3, IMAP, MIME); blogging (HTTP, XML, RSS, Atom); podcasting (RSS); and instant messaging (IRC, XMPP, SIP/SIMPLE). Unlike private social media platforms, these are NEA: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them and Anybody can improve them. That’s what makes them infrastructural and generative. (Even in cases where protocols were owned, such as by Dave Winer with RSS, efforts were made to remove ownership as an issue.)

Tweeting today is in many ways like instant messaging was when the only way you could do it with AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and ICQ. All were silos, with little if any interoperabiity. Some still are. Check out this list of instant messaging protocols. It’s a mess. That’s because so many of the commonly-used platforms of ten years ago are still, in 2009, private silos. There’s a degree of interoperability, thanks mostly to Google’s adoption of XMPP (aka Jabber) as an IM protocol (Apple and Facebook have too). But it’s going slow because AOL, MSN and Yahoo remain isolated in their own silos. Or, as Walt Whitman put it, “demented with the mania of owning things”. With tweeting we do have interop, and that’s why tweeting has taken off while IM stays stagnant. But we don’t have NEA with Twitter, and that’s why tweeting is starting to stagnate, and developers like Dave are working on getting past it.

Here’s my other problem with “social media” (as it shows up in too many of the 103 million results it currently brings up on Google): as a concept (if not as a practice) it subordinates the personal.

Computers are personal now. So are phones. So, fundamentally, is everything each of us does. It took decades to pry computing out of central control and make it personal. We’re in the middle of doing the same with telephony — and everything else we can do on a hand-held device.

Personal and social go hand-in-hand, but the latter builds on the former.

Today in the digital world we still have very few personal tools that work only for us, are under personal control, are NEA, and are not provided as a grace of some company or other. (If you can only get it from somebody site, it ain’t personal.) That’s why I bring up email, blogging, podcasting and instant messaging. Yes, there are plenty of impersonal services involved in all of them, but those services don’t own the category. We can swap them out. They are, as the economists say, substitutable.

But we’re not looking at the personal frontier because the social one gets all the attention — and the investment money as well.

Markets are built on the individuals we call customers. They’re where the ideas, the conversations, the intentions (to buy, to converse, to relate) and the money all start. Each of us, as individuals, are the natural points of integration of our own data — and of origination about what gets done with it.

Individually-empowered customers are the ultimate greenfield for business and culture. Starting with the social keeps us from working on empowering individuals natively. That most of the social action is in silos and pipes of hot and/or giant companies slows things down even more. They may look impressive now, but they are a drag on the future.

Defrag wraps tomorrow with a joint keynote titled “Cluetrain at 10”. On stage will be JP Rangaswami, Chris Locke, Rick Levine and yours truly, representing four out of the seven contributors to the new 10th Anniversary Edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto. We don’t have plans for the panel yet, but I want it to be personal as well as social, and a conversation with the rest of the crowd there. Among other things I want to probe what we’re not doing because “social” everything is such a bubble of buzz right now.

See some of ya there. And the rest of you on the backchannels.


  1. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Howard, thanks for writing and sharing your (always) wise and considered thoughts. Especially on a topic as close to home as this one is. And thanks for teaching that class. I hope what I wrote here helped in some way. As I said, I didn’t want to give the students a hard time at all.

    My apologies for not responding sooner. I only found your comment, buried in the “pending” queue, a couple days ago. (Though your comment is dated November 12, it didn’t appear until I approved it, on Monday.) I don’t know why WordPress selectively shows only a few of the pending comments in the dashboard view where I usually go to approve comments as they come in, or why comments from previously approved commenters go into the pending queue sometimes; but that’s what it happens, apparently. Hope they fix that in an upcoming version.

  2. Samir Balwani’s avatar

    This post highlights a major problem with “social media” as a whole. When we forward an email is that social media? I hate that social media is only Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace. It’s really more than that. It’s how we’ve evolved to interacting online, over interacting in person.

    Thank you for the post and giving me something to think about.

  3. deakaz’s avatar

    I agree that there is a problem with social media, or maybe just the term itself. Before “social media” it was called “new media” or “web 2.0 marketing” when really, it’s a new form of PR. I tend to think of social media as “word of mouth marketing” it’s about engaging with customers and individuals to build relationships. Most people think of the obvious when they hear “social media” (Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Youtube) but there are a lot more that are playing a HUGE part in this space like Tumblr, Posterous and even Flickr.

    I think the next wave of this will be more personal or local, like mobile apps that provide a more unique experience.

    Thanks for provoking these thoughts in me!

  4. Tom’s avatar

    In the UK a few years back there were millions of people using a site called It has been all but replaced by now.
    Facebook too will probably be replaced in the not too distant future, because the technology base is always changing so rapidly, because the internet is so huge (with it’s consequent viral dissemination), and because people are so easily distracted in an environment whose entire basis is bionic extension (and new ways to enhance our limited capabilities).

  5. Robert Bacal’s avatar

    I’m not a branding type guy, but the whole notion of social media being a swiss army knife for business and learning is so obviously overblown it’s sad. And for many reasons but not the least of which is that communication mediated by machine is not the same as when it’s not mediated by machines.

    and…contrary to what I call the hype and hope, you can”t protect a brand via social media. Social Media is an uncontrollable set of media, much like a hurricane. You know its there. You can’t do anything much about it but hunker down and do your best.

    The social media numbers are misinterpreted and when they aren’t reach is clearly much less — so it appears you can reach about 100x more people than you actually will.

    The new media isn’t “social” any more than walking down a crowded street is social. Communication is rather ineffective. And the costs of gaining followers/friends is high.

    We hear about the few successes but if you look at the hidden attrition rates for small business you will find each month thousands of them who have tried, given up and left. Silently.

    It’s weird to watch this.

    It’s also weird to see all the survey data, which is essentially useless and portrays a ridiculously positive picture of the power of social media. Why so few people are actually designing proper surveys is beyond me, and I include major expert organizations in the group that has no clue how to get even basic trustworthy information about use of social media and its effectiveness.

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