I produce social media, both for fun (Something to Be Desired) and for a living. And I can say, even as one of the medium’s biggest supporters, that it simply doesn’t matter.
Why? Because we, with rare exception, are not producing media that matters.
Here’s the paradox: given the financial, creative and time constraints imposed upon aspiring social media creators, most people do exactly what they’ve been told since their first writing lesson: write what you know.
This results in a rich tapestry of user-generated media about quirky content that small groups are passionate about. And yet, despite even the larger success stories, very few people are creating media that appeals to an audience outside the early-adopter tech / niche / geek fishbowl.
Why? Three reasons.
1. Who’s Watching Me?
The largest audience for this kind of content IS the affluent, tech-obsessed population. This tends to exclude large segments of the populace by association. (Thus, why produce media for an audience that isn’t there?)
2. Great Expectations
To produce something akin to "mainstream" media — whether comedy, drama, news, education, etc. — forces the potential audience to compare that independently-produced media with the slick, corporate-funded media presented to them every day, across multiple distribution platforms, for free.
This is not a comparison in which the average, pop culture-beholden consumer will find in favor of the indie, so why invest resources in attracting their attention in the first place?
Thus, based solely upon the two initial premises, the aspiring social media creator is faced with a choice: invest time and effort in becoming large WITHIN the fishbowl, and hope that niche appeal eventually translates to a scalable opportunity within the traditional corporate media structure…
… or, attempt to create something "populist" from the get-go, knowing that the odds of acceptance are diminished on both sides (from the culture AND the counter-culture, each of whom will see the creator as an half-compliant outsider).
3. No One (Including the Creators) Actually Cares
The other reason social media doesn’t matter (yet) is because social media creators, with rare exception, fail to use the democratic potential of this medium to engage in MEANINGFUL conversation or incite ACTUAL change.
Take Alive in Baghdad. Everyone who’s familiar with the series, who’s watched a few episodes, or who knows creator Brian Conley personally, realizes that AiB is one of the landmark creations in social media’s still-nascent history.
The premise of the series — actual stories of Iraqi citizens, filmed by Iraqis and translated for the American (and world) public — appeals directly to the "renegade" sensibilities of the social media culture. We all inherently recognize the risks Brian is taking and the potential for change that AiB provides. This makes Brian’s tale the easiest to tell, the one that’s most inspiring, and the comparison that’s hardest to live up to.
It’s also, apparently, almost impossible to sustain.
Because the social media audience (like the mainstream audience) doesn’t want to involve itself in stories outside its own fishbowl. It doesn’t want to tumble down the rabbit hole of world politics, or theology, or sociology. It doesn’t want to risk taking actions that may be inconvenient or uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, if you post a Twitter about the new iPods, or mention an upcoming tech conference, or ask what people’s favorite fonts are, you’ll be overwhelmed with replies.
The fishbowl, it seems, is safe.
Will It Blend?
How do you reconcile:
* a medium built upon democratization,
* a culture steeped in consumerism, and
* a community comprised primarily of intelligent, independent and strongly opinionated — yet ultimately insular, self-obsessed and apathetic — individuals
with the possibility for this emerging medium to become relevant (and even catalytic) beyond its own borders?
I think those of us who’ve moved beyond the simple creation of social media and taken the time to foster its community need to ask ourselves a few questions:
* Why am I doing this?
* What constitutes "success" for me?
* What’s IMPORTANT to me?
I fully expect that, for 90% of the social media population, the color choices among the new iPod Nanos ARE what’s important to them. That’s not their fault — the fishbowl is a welcoming place, and their voices ring much louder within its walls than they would outside.
But, for the other 10% who can somehow sense that social media is capable of more than just generating record-setting Halo 3 sales numbers…
… or driving up demand for the iPhone…
… or defending the career of Britney Spears…
… surely there must be something more we can do?