Our society is, as we speak, forging ahead in a new era, the result of a major paradigm shift that we’ve been experiencing since the tail end of the twentieth century. The way we conceive of our place in the world around us has fundamentally changed, and we’re still trying to figure out exactly what that means, and where it will lead us. As digital marketers, our place in that new ecosystem is similarly being recontextualized, and only by understanding the change and the layout of the new system will digital marketing be able to thrive.
From Media to Content
Put simply, the historical divide between information producers (like journalists, or media moguls) and consumers (the general public) is breaking down. We used to have a basically linear distribution network, with a clear start point and endpoint, connected by a medium.
In fact, it was about two centuries ago that we started using the expression “the media” to refer to newspapers, focusing on their quality of being a ‘means of conveyance’. We hadn’t previously conceptualized printed works as “media”, preferring instead to treat books as individual artefacts that took on a life of their own once they’d been printed. They would be read, shared, talked about, borrowed from, and in a myriad other ways would weave into an ongoing fabric of information-reality.
With the advent of the newspaper (a thing too flimsy to be worth sharing far or to last for very long unless deliberately preserved, as a matter of record) we started to think of information being from somewhere going to somewhere by means of a conveyance. That idea, that basic notion that information was a communiqué and the newspaper akin to a telegraph wire – a medium – resonated well with how we were starting to conceptualize our place in the world in general as, primarily, a consumer. Food comes on carts, goods come on ships; information (a consumer good, for the first time) comes in newspapers.
We found “the media” to be so evocative and apposite a phrase that we went on to apply it to other means of conveyance, like radio and television. By the latter half of the twentieth century, we found it completely intuitive to treat information, packaged and branded and sold, as a consumer good to be absorbed and digested delivered to us by the media.
The phrase eventually took on a second life, by metonymy, to refer to the information producers themselves, as a collective noun. As early as 1920, to the dismay of purists, there are instances of usages like, “What does the media say about this issue?” It wasn’t long before the general public forgot that the phrase had any other meaning.
At the end of the twentieth century, coinciding with the rise of the Internet (an unprecedented font of information) and mobile computing (always-on internet access as a new standard) we began to renegotiate our relationship with “the media”. Tellingly, we started to treat “The Media” as an archaism of decreasing relevance (recent electoral trends notwithstanding) while focusing on content instead.
Perhaps because there were so many new media sources, most of them publishing the same stories (a trade-off for instant news coverage), or perhaps because of a general feeling of distrust and bias when it came to the twentieth century’s major players, or perhaps because we finally had a proliferation of new voices to listen to, we stopped thinking of our relationship to information as a one-way street. Once we started giving content primacy over delivery mechanism, we evaluated it on its own merits (rather than giving it a free pass because of its source). We started to provide feedback, and began to treat that relationship like a dialogue.
And, once it had become a dialogue, we recast ourselves from consumers to participants.
From Consuming to Sharing
As participants, and with a proliferation of new content creation sources emerging, our ongoing information dialogue grew in scope. The old model of Source to Consumer evolved into a complex multi-nodal network with no clear start or end point. Returning to the model we developed with the debut of the printing press, information, once again, became an artifact to be used, shared, adapted, built on, disagreed with, and so on. We could watch, in real time, a debate unfolding between two conflicting points of view, and we could get involved in the process. The Media no longer provided a unified front, and we were no longer outsiders.
As nodes in a network, we were no longer “consumers”. Now, recast, we were participants in the creation of content, the discussion surrounding it, and the various distribution networks by which it would proliferate.
The next step in our information revolution was the rise of social media.
The Rise of Social Media and Sharing Culture
I’m not the first to point out that social media makes each of us a microcosmic reporter, publisher, and printing press all rolled into a tidy package. We broadcast the minutiae of our lives, and we stay in near constant communication with a social circle of heretofore unprecedented size.
Before we talk about how Twitter became a success, and a viable digital marketing platform, it’s useful to explore what made previous efforts, like MySpace and Friendster, such dismal failures.
The answer is really quite obvious: they were built with twentieth-century cognition of information transfer, and so were already outdated at the time of their conception. MySpace cast you as a provider, your page as a medium, and your friends as consumers. It was fundamentally linear, rather than nodal.
Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, rose to supremacy by building their architecture on the new conceptual metaphor: Every participant becomes a node in the social network (that’s why we call it that), and content is transmitted across connecting nodes as an artifact. In fact, the phrase “going viral” refers to the communicability of a particular meme (yes, that word predates the image macro) or article, or piece of content. Each node decides whether to put his or her stamp on it and send it down the line. Content that gains the most views is content which makes the greatest number of nodes with the greatest number of followers want to make it their own by deliberately retransmitting it.
That’s how Sharing Culture came about, as a result of the new nodal network system of information. Now that we see ourselves as being participatory in our information culture, we simply aren’t content to be simple consumers – we have an active role, for the first time in centuries, in our own information distribution, and we’re eager to explore it.
Network Prominence as Social Capital
The influence of any single node is a function of how many sources it draws from and how many other nodes it distributes to (usually with a fair bit of overlap between the two groups). As a node in the network, by participating smartly, one can increase social capital. It’s been well documented that social capital (and the Likes, ReTweets, and so on that come with it) stimulate the reward centers in our brains, but social capital is for more than just vanity.
Social capital in the Twitter age has proven to be an invaluable tool. Twitter has been used to coordinate relief efforts after natural disasters. Pictures and reports are tweeted when planes crash and when armies march. It gives a voice to the developing world that’s hard to censor, and, by leveraging followers, activists have repeatedly got those messages out to a huge audience without ever bothering with more traditional media.
In fact, when it comes to journalism, “The Media” are beginning to report tweeted descriptions and pictures, since it’s just not possible to mobilize a reporter to, say, a plane crash as quickly as a passenger tweeting developments in real time.
Even for major corporations or governments, Tweets, for their scope, accessibility, and potential for interaction and dialogue, are the de facto first point of access and most accurate source of news. Citing a personal example, during a recent power outage, I let the municipal Twitter feed tell me about repair crew dispatches and restoration estimates, while the website for the local paper didn’t mention the outage until several hours later.
A New Kind of Optimization
How to Use Digital Marketing in the Twitter Age
I know we’ve talked a lot about Twitter, social media, and our cultural relationship with information so far in this piece, but all of this does have a clear and prescient bearing on the digital marketing industry.
In ages past, a good marketer would create an accessible message, find a customer base to aim the message at, and wait for the money to roll in. That was back when customers were simple consumers. In this new era, when each node decides whether to publish and further distribute content, the twentieth-century model is unlikely to succeed. No single node, no company or marketer, has enough followers to compete with the network as a whole.
In this new era, it’s incumbent upon us digital marketers to treat our content as an artifact, and to accept that it will only thrive if it takes on a life of its own. When a node in the network sees, likes, and decides to share something we’ve created, there’s a meta-textual message being shared along with it. When our content is shared, it isn’t strictly ours anymore. A person who passes it on rebrands it, and adds something of himself to it as well. It may be as simple as an “I liked this, and I thought you should see it, too” or it might be a spin like “Does this remind you of what it reminds me of?” It may be negative, if a person sends it along with a snide comment, and our content might find itself used as evidence in someone else’s debate.
So, if we’re treating our content and our output as artifacts that, we know, will take on a life of their own, we can start thinking about how to be better content creators. After all, in our industry, Content is Queen.
Think of how many different lives a piece of content will lead. With each share, and redistribution, it will have taken on something of the sender and will have been put to a new purpose. Imagine seeing a piece of content completely removed from its original context, but instead shared as evidence in a debate. You’ll read that piece with a different eye than if you had seen it sitting innocently on the writer’s blog, without a trace of polemic undertone.
For the first time in our industry, we actually do ourselves a disservice by trying to create content with a particular message or purpose. It sounds counterintuitive, but, in this new sharing culture, it’s the only way to thrive. We simply cannot know the roles our content will play, or the myriad lives it will go on to lead. If three people share it, and then three people each share each of those, a single piece of content will already have been repurposed twice, into nine distinct forms. Maybe one is fodder in an argument about the relevance and reach of Twitter, and another is being derided for selling MySpace short, and still another has inspired someone to look up the word “polemic”.
We aren’t creating content for just one purpose. We need to prepare every piece we produce with as many tools as possible, so it can succeed in all its many lives. For instance, I’ve written this piece for digital marketers, but I hope technophiles, social and business analysts, anthropologists, linguists, and writers will all find something of personal relevance, and those are just the ones I can foresee.
As digital marketers in the twenty first century, we need to create Swiss Army content, so that it can be useful and relevant in all the circles we can imagine and in all the ones we can’t, too. We don’t get as far writing for a particular audience as we do writing something with character. Back to the days of the printing press: before the newspaper, before there were information consumers.
That market is oversaturated, so there’s little point in adding our voices to the din. We aren’t making consumer goods anymore, we’re creating talking points and tools and graphs and evidence and a whole host of artifacts. Our content should be useful, engaging, and full of character. We want to produce something that each node in the network – a diverse cast of characters – will deem worth sharing.
Colibri Digital Marketing— A San Francisco Digital Marketing Agency
We’re the digital marketing agency for the twenty first century. Based in San Francisco, we’ve got our fingers on the pulse of Silicon Valley, and we’ve got an insider perspective on the goings on of the tech industry. We’re pioneering a new kind of digital marketing, conceptualized for Twitter and for sharing culture in general.
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