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. Brian Solis’s avatar

    Doc, well articulated…thank you. Several years ago as Social Media was initially formulating, we discussed whether or not we should even put weight behind “social media” as a category. You offered an alternative, which I still refer to today, “The Live Web.” Considering the convergence of personal + mobile + communication + social + geo + real-time, it seems that your idea of the Live Web is beginning to materialize.

  2. Frank Paynter’s avatar

    Excellent post, Doc! I’ve resisted the “social media” hype and thought I might be the only one. Still, when people move their conversation from blogs to facebook, well… I gotta follow. Even so, facebook and its ilk remind me of AOL. Irony is that when Mosaic was released, AOL hung on to their walled garden approach even when their members pleaded for access to the world wide web. Wish I could be at defrag to hear the cluetrain at 10 keynote.

  3. christopher carfi’s avatar

    Doc, spot on and insightful, as always.

  4. Peter Schooff’s avatar

    We actually raised this very question on the ebizQ Forum, with some very interesting answers here:

    Also, would love for you to share your e-wisdom as well…if interested, please email me.

    Great blog post!


  5. Vaspers aka Steven E Streight’s avatar

    Wonderful analysis, by a pioneer blogger, on Personal Media vs. Social Media.

    I also think that Social Media, if there really is a deep socializing element in it, should make all participants more friendly, compassionate, and extroverted in the real world.

    If all “social” interaction is happening on the social media sites, but we’re surly, sour, and asocial in our daily offline affairs, then Social Media is a Grand Illusion.

    In blogocombat, my primary technique is to respond with text to text. I don’t make it personal. I fight bad ideas with good ideas, hopefully. But in blogocaring, I try to connect my heart with the hearts of the people who seem to reside behind or beyond the text.

    I’ve noticed that I indeed have become more sociable in the offline world, as a result of intense social media interaction, as typified by RTs, @s, :^) and sincere kindness to those who ask questions or provide me with comfort and support.

    But to many, social media may be just another video game where points accumulated are Followers numbers and now Listings.

    And, back to your point, if social media platforms are controlled by companies, then we are only slightly empowered personally.

    Excellant article Doc!

  6. Jon Husband’s avatar

    I second the above comments.

    The issues you highlight will be with us for a long time, and are at the heart of our societies’ access to and use of the Net for the whole range of human activities … not only monetization and commerce.

  7. Claudio Luís Vera (@modulist)’s avatar

    Doc, there are great alternatives to Twitter and Facebook out there, and many of them are open source. However, there are very subtle but very strong barriers out there to their adoption.

    There are applications like that are very viable alternatives to Twitter, but they’ve been completely ignored by the ecosystem of third party apps that supports Twitter. It’s even more frustrating when you consider that apps like these fully support and adhere to the standards of the Twitter API.

    The progress you want hinges on having developers of third party apps recognize that the Twitter API is a platform that’s independent of Jack, Biz, and Ev in San Francisco. Once third party apps like TweetDeck and TweetChat recognize other microblogging apps, then we can truly start to decentralize and have things like private patient communities, support groups, etc. without the financial and commercial pressures.

  8. Hamish MacEwan’s avatar

    The provenance of the NEA “personal” technologies you list is in silos, such is the way of these things as described by Clayton Christensen in the Innovator’s Solution.

    Proprietary, closed, integrated solutions that fulfill the customers’ needs. Then comes open, standard, modular solutions.

    Yes, the services you mention are the new AOLs, and have learned their lessons, they are the *new* AOLs. Just as AOL simplified and democratised the tangle of computers and dial-up back in the day, so have Facebook and Twitter, while Friendfeed has not and consequently isn’t performing as well on the mass adoption metric. Since the new gardens have lower walls and costs of participation, the incentive to displace them may be weakened.

    And along with the hot, easy, integrated solutions (Twitter, iPhone) we are seeing the growth of the open, modular (, Android).

    Thus while I agree with your view about the development cycling back to a less NEA model, the new AOLs are just a typical and necessary step toward the next NEA.

  9. J.D. Falk’s avatar

    Yes! I was meandering towards this point in a few weeks ago; thank you for identifying the core of it.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Agreed, Hamish, but I believe that the email protocols predate, or were at least contemporaneous with, proprietary email systems. Same goes for the Net and online services such as AOL. Anyway, point taken.

  11. Otto’s avatar

    It’s a nice idea, but the problem is that non-tech-nerds are really, really bad at owning their own software.

    I mean, yeah okay, it’s easy to buy hosting and set up a WordPress site and do anything you like, but it’s a *lot* easier to set up a Facebook account and share stuff with your friends that way. I’ve even heard people complain that I don’t check my Facebook Inbox enough. These people are using it instead of email, because “email’s too hard” or “email is for work stuff”. Seriously.

    Look, my mom can use Facebook effectively, she can read Twitter. She can’t setup her own sharing platform, no matter how easy you make it to do.

    The vast majority of personal sharing methods will always be through private companies hosting your stuff for you. The real goal here should be to make them all intercompatible by developing open protocols that anybody can use.

  12. Noah Flower’s avatar

    It’s a good point that the standards aren’t there yet. But there hasn’t yet been a need. You point to instant messaging, yet the truth is that IM clients are all run on proprietary protocols, with only a handful of network-spanning clients to bridge them. There, as with social networks and microblogging, the private players haven’t been forced to adopt standards, and while it’s a little bit annoying I’d argue that we’re not that much the worse for it. The reason is because of all the competition, which we haven’t really had in social media yet. Facebook knocked down all the other competitors for the U.S. market, Twitter invented its own category, and nobody’s been able to unseat either one. But that won’t last forever. I say: wait and see what happens when the marketplace starts to swell.

  13. Vaspers aka Steven E Streight’s avatar

    Facebook is anti-web in that it’s a closed system: you have to have a Facebook account to even read a Facebook blog. Such insularity only destroys the open communications platform of the web revolution.

  14. Chris Wills’s avatar

    Great post. Right now the private social media platforms work because there is still very little competition. Developers are still figuring this space out. We saw this happen 20 years ago with AOL, Compuserver, etc. and it will happen again with Facebook. People are fine with a closed system until something better comes along.

    What the average Facebook user doesn’t realize is that all the connections they’ve made and all the time they’ve spent on the site will be useless when people move to the next big thing. It will happen.

    Social Media has a huge future and Facebook, Twitter, etc. will not be able to keep up with vast changes that are coming. An open platform will win out in the end even if it’s several years from now.

  15. Darius Dunlap’s avatar

    The internet continues to be an amazing platform for connecting people and ideas. I say that’s always been its primary function. it’s just that when something new comes along, we naturally look at it in the context of what we had before. So we modify “media” with “social” and think that’s a meaningful placeholder for what’s happening… but the frame misleads us.

    Thanks Doc for mashing Reset.


  16. Tim Chambers’s avatar

    Thought-provoking, Doc, but you didn’t mention NNTP. I assume that’s because Usenet is so Web 1.0. But maybe it’s time to adapt NNTP to microblogging? Then no single service —,,, etc.) would be the bottleneck. We don’t need real-time updates the way an IM system requires real-time. Usenet was optimized for propagation delays across UUCP. Ancient.

  17. Don Marti’s avatar

    All the big online social networks are developing useful software and administration knowledge that will come in handy when the next generation of social networks comes along.

    Someone who learned sysadmin and moderation skills atthe WELL, AOL,, Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, or whatever, will be able to move on and do it again somewhere else. Just like the person who learned to tend bar at last year’s cool bar is able to tend bar at this year’s cool bar. No online gathering place lasts too long, as Cory Doctorow explains.

    The software and the net are infrastructure, and the sites are places where people choose to gather for a while.

  18. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Tim, in an earlier draft I mentioned NNTP, but bagged it because I wanted to cover a smaller number of examples. Not because it’s pre-Web. Other protocols I mention are pre-Web too. Still, good point.

  19. Dan York’s avatar

    Doc, Excellent post! I wrote something similar a few months back ( ) about how services like Twitter and Facebook both violate “The Internet Way” of being “distributed and decentralized” systems and networks. As you note, anyone can set up a mail server, an email server, an XMPP IM server, etc. – *without* asking anyone’s permission. You just go ahead and do it. I like your “NEA” terminology – spot on.

    As Don and others have stated in the comments, we may right now be in the transition phase from private/proprietary/silo social media/messaging/networks to more open networks that build upon what was learning in the private silos. Let’s hope so – for the sake of all of us.

    Thanks for writing this piece – will your “Cluetrain at 10” joint keynote be livestreamed or recorded for later viewing?

  20. Howard Rheingold’s avatar

    These were students in this class, Doc:

    They are smart, but like a lot of people, before they started this course they thought everything started with Facebook. As you can see from the syllabus, I’m trying to give them a sense of the scope of issues and both the long history of the pace of change. Last year, I brought Doug Engelbart into the class in person. I don’t think he’s up for that kind of interaction these days.

    I guess that’s what happens when you get old — you remember the olden days, and that the names and trends change, but you can see longer term arcs.

    Besides giving them context, I’m trying to help them think analytically and reflectively about their own media practices. Analysis is something they know. Reflection, apparently, is not required to get into college.

    The nomenclature seems to change with the seasons. Fred Turner calls what he does “cyberculture studies,” and of course, “virtual community” is archaic. It looks like “social media” is at the beginning of the end of its life cycle. But I think Don had it right in his comment: people learn from their experiences and invent new forms.

    I don’t know that it’s a crock. I do know that it’s not new, and that it will change, has changed. The emphasis these days seems to be so heavily on marketing. I understand that. But of course, it’s not all that’s happening. I’m glad that notions of social capital are entering the discourse, though.

  21. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    Doc — TNL pointed me to your post. Sorry I haven’t been a regular reader in a while.

    I’ve been in Facebook. With my RL friends.

    Grant that my Real Life friends aren’t as deeply philosophical as TNL or you. But give them credit! Maybe a tenth of had been — please allow this phrase — “social sharing” before, and most of them via email blasts.

    There’s a tension in communications between messy and neat. We all start with messy. But when someone offers us a new “neat” technology, in order to broaden our horizons (radio with 2 bands. Television with 3 channels. Cable with 75 channels. etc.) we take it.

    Now let’s get to the Internet. Open protocols are more flexible — and more messy. And thus take more cognition on the part of the average user. So adoption is limited.

    I know that you want to move people towards the open/messy. But that may not happen.

    Your “NEA” terminology is a bit confusing to me, since it suggests that No Ownership + Everybody Uses +Anybody Improves are bound together. Let me try a different tack — which comes to me straight from Open Source philosophy.

    You want to unbind material ownership from affective ownership — these are the people who can affect any improvements. You seek an organization (or technology) where the affective owners have 100% of the control, vs. 0% to private interests. That could be described as the “perfect” organization. The affective owners are the *effective* owners — they have the ability to make the change. Ok, what if there are material owners, but the work of the affective owners (community) is so the material owners voluntarily step to the background (the steward model)? Or what if the ratio is 99:1? And furthermore, it’s not as if organizations/technologies with zero material ownership are bound to continuously improve (ie., NTTP).

    I hate to pull unrank here, but if I were a researcher with your cachet, I would focus on the metrics first. Figure out how to measure material vs. affective ownership amongst different orgs/technologies. Figure out where affective ownership works best.

    And here’s where we ultimately differ: in your pursuit of the goal of “no ownership” you stoke ownership angst. This is the same angst that worries about a federal “takeover” of healthcare. But there doesn’t have to be angst if material ownership is rendered moot — through effective Affective ownership.


  22. John M’s avatar

    My cousin and I had a similiar conversation tonight.

    He’s involved with the church and we discussed how social media is affecting the way people interact.

    While Facebook is not as anonymous as most websites, take a look at the events. When you’re invited to an event on Facebook, your more likely to say yes, just to support them, even if you know you can’t go. Would you do the same in person? Probably not.

  23. jeneane’s avatar

    Remember when blogging was something we did as individuals (who, oh p.s., happened to work somewhere or do some specific thing for a living) and then some of us started working together (not by some pre-ordained SOW, but because of the RELATIONSHIP SINEW that strung us together)? Of course you do, and I know that because I’ve hugged you.

    SO: we are still a bunch of people who happen to work somewhere, shop somewhere, move about somewheres, dream about some things. That is who we are first. AND we also happen to be the same people who are using social media while engaging in all of the aforementioned activities. Which is why It. All. Begins. With. Us.

    I watch many companies approach their social media strategies with a broadcast mentality. It’s another channel for disseminating information, for pushing news and information outward. They’re looking at it completely backwards, missing the opportunity to LISTEN to what’s coming IN.

    And this gets complicated when you’re talking about a B2B company. There is no “consumer” in their direct line of fire, but in spirit and in process, there should be. Every strategy of a B2B company should start with their customers’ customers and work its way inward.

    I’m rambling.

    I wish I could be there.

    Have fun tomorrow w/ Chris, JP, and Rick!

    (p.s. It’s RageBoy’s birthday tomorrow–and I think JP’s too! If I had money, there’s no telling what surprise I’d conjure up. But since I don’t and I’m not there, it’s on you, Doc!)

  24. Marc Ostrick’s avatar

    Incredible Post. I was looking for your email and couldn’t find it, so I hope this does not come of as spammy – Hope you enjoy these short docs we made using pocket tools.

    The Spark Series is a collection of short documentaries that show the application of emerging tech tools empowering the creative process of communication.


    The new dial tone:

    Not another twitter conference:

  25. Mark Mathson’s avatar


    Your points are well taken, and I don’t get the gist you are ‘resisting social media’ but rather taken a standardized approach to what everyone is labeling social media. I can certainly appreciate the instant messenger perspective, however, also feel that what is the alternative? Can microblogging be standardized.

    I feel that what sites like Facebook, LinkedIn are doing with ‘federating’ status updates is the right direction. Granted Twitter has a monopoly on status updates, but its still in the air, so to speak. 😉

    Best regards,

  26. Norbert Mayer-Wittmann’s avatar

    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.

    Would you say that language is “owned” by individuals or that it’s “owned” (managed, defined, etc.) by society? (Wittgenstein noted that the meanings of words are give by the contexts in which they are used)

    See also “Get out of the Box” ( ) and other writings (such as )

  27. Stephen Hamilton’s avatar

    You make some really good points, Doc. I think if I was a developer/programmer type in my early twenties, I wouldn’t be learning all about the Twitter/Facebook etc API’s, I’d be helping Dave out with RSS Cloud, jumping all over open VRM, and taking a look at the tools Google have just open-sourced. That is where the exciting stuff is going to be in a few years, I reckon.

  28. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Norbert, “own” is a tough verb to nail down, in all its forms. Yet a common understanding of it is essential for functioning language, society, government and economy. Possession may not be ‘nine tenths of the law’, but it certainly is at least that much of a three-year old who insists ‘it’s mine!”

    We are grabby animals. We carry things around. We stake out turf. We go to war over land and rights to what’s above and below it.

    The ownership of a technology, a protocol, or a standard, can be a sticky thing to sort out; which is why the IETF’s “loose consensus and running code” has been so effective at establishing many of the standards we take for granted. Technically it’s not a standards body, but it’s close enough to establish infrastructural frameworks on which we can depend.

    In many cases proprietary technologies are opened to remove ownership as a fear-inducing impediment to adoption. Such was the case with Ethernet, and why we now connect to networks via that system rather than competing ones whose ownership became an issue.

    So the issue is less ownership itself than what gets done with it.

    If you want to create deep infrastructure that is supportive and generative in nature, what you make needs to have more in common with gravity, wind and sunlight than with silos and walled gardens.

  29. Doc Searls’s avatar


    Good points, as usual.

    To clarify things a bit, my goal is not “no ownership.” Instead I would like hasten movement toward a more mature industry — one akin to construction, where the open and modular nature of the practice leaves lots of room for combinations of open, closed, proprietary and public domain (to name four ends of two orthogonal axis), and stuff distributed all over the place within the territories those axis lay out.

    The goal of this post is to reduce the hype around “social” everything and raise awareness of virgin territory where much work is left to be done, and is to some degree ignored in the midst of all the “social” buzz.

    The largest territories are going to be essentially public ones that support all kinds of private activity. That’s why we have the Internet and not one big LAN owned by IBM, AOL, Novell, Microsoft, Compuserve or the other major players who defined the well-known networking landscape of the 80s and early 90s. It’s messy but it works well enough.

  30. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mark, I don’t know if microblogging can, or should, be standardized. At least not at this early stage. What Twitter did was brilliant and helpful. I use it every day. But it’s not the final stage of anything, and that’s the way I hear a lot of people talking about it — as if we’ve all moved to this big Twitterverse.

    As I said here, we’re living in the Net’s paleozoic, where Facebooks and Twitters are trilobites and bryzoans. It’s early. Let’s not assume that anything is an end-stage. And let’s not get so caught up in the current buzz that we miss the opportunities to create new technical species while getting the old ones to evolve.

  31. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    Doc — very well. I agree with the vector: openness and interoperability are good goals to push towards.

    I’m just unconvinced that the social media industry are inherently against it. I think one can reasonable argue that social media is inherently about sharing with minimal restrictions — and that’s a good thing.

    Calling for a new “personal” epoch sounds rather retro — PC’s and PDA’s are not cutting edge anymore.

    Let me know if I’ve struck any chord with “affective ownership” — surely some economist or legal scholar has trod down this path? I’ll check my Benkler. One other koan I can offer: the material owner exercises power through past actions (creating the company, getting elected to office) while the affective owner exercises power through potential actions (buying more software, re-electing officers). In the “age of ClueTrain”, material owners should be better able to measure the needs, wants and power of the affective owners better, leading them down the path of stewardship.

    Meanwhile, is down right now. Oy…

  32. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Jon — I’m fascinated by “affective ownership” and think it is well worth exploring. Might be a fun Berkman lunch talk. Want to give one?

    As for the personal frontier, I’m not looking for an epoch, just to fill in some blanks. I think there are some big missing pieces there.

  33. Erica’s avatar

    What about Facebook Connect and other attempts to integrate the walled gardens into the general web? With Twitter’s leaked goal of having a billion users by whenever and Facebook’s push to own more of the web than Google, it doesn’t look like the silo companies are going anywhere, but they are trying to let you port your silo identity anywhere you like online. That’s pretty convenient, if terrifying in terms of the privacy trade-off.

    I can see Facebook sticking around long term, because of their vast valuation, but moreso because our moms aren’t going to switch over to the next trendy new social network. Facebook has “most” people and the value of a social network is that’s where “most” people are. I resist stuff like Google Wave because I’m like “not another place to have to build up a network!”

  34. Norbert Mayer-Wittmann’s avatar

    So the issue is less ownership itself than what gets done with it.

    Compare this quote:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it
    means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

    Lewis Carrol, “Through the Looking-Glass” via

    I believe that the language that we share with each other is owned in common — in other words: “Everyone who speaks a language is a communist”… (and the same goes for standards [such as the rule that we drive on the right/left side of the street]).

    However, we must not be misled to believe that the community is all encompassing or global. In fact, communities are usually limited, and so is their language / dialect / jargon.

    Likewise, we do not need 1 solution to solve all cases for everyone. Such a procrustean approach is contra-productive. The domain name system is an ideal semantic web that allows each community to create data structures which the members of that community find useful. Apples + oranges are not required to be standardized into some “round fruit” standard.

    If means some commercial entity, then that is fine. If means a different commercial entity then that is also fine. There is no reason why members of the community need to follow the same standard(s) as members of the community (and/or vice versa).

    Or maybe I am missing something?

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