Saturday, April 01, 2006

Social Media, Citizen Media, and uncle Tom Cobbley and All

This is the third in my occasional series of postings inspired by the phenomenon of media-rich blogs and video sharing.

As I self-importantly suggested in the update I appended on March 30th to my first posting on this topic, I had realized that I had actually stumbled onto something bigger. I even rather overambitiously used the word “revolution”.

Now, let me just pause here: I’m going to try to avoid overreaching here — to try to come across as if I have something of great profundity and originality to say. I have found it difficult to find a “voice” that I am comfortable with in this blog, and I think one of the reasons is that I frequently seem to fall into this trap: of struggling to turn what are just a bunch of observations and unformed thoughts into something “real”. It’s also why I frequently fail to post on current events until long after they are no longer interesting, so that I end up not posting about them at all.

This time I am going to try to make a concerted effort to avoid falling into that pretentious trap, and I will try to restrict myself to some few simple facts that I have become aware of, sites I’ve found from googling, and the necessarily rather shallow, facile, and incomplete impressions I have formed from those facts. I will also try to avoid any more uses of words like “revolution”!

Although, if I can say one grandiose thing it’s that these are exciting times! (At least, as long as you can forget about Dubbya’s concerted efforts to start world war III…) What’s going on today feels, to me, like the early signs of the long-hoped-for fruition of what the internet has long promised to be: what the personal computer revolution (sorry, that word again), going back to the earliest days of the Altair and the Apple II, was supposed to be, when a bunch of already-aging hippies were talking about the democratizing power of technology. There’s nothing quite that touchy-feely going on here, but it is still pretty cool.

First, some clarification in terminology. I used the term “Social Media” in that earlier update, but I think I was using it too broadly. For instance, one of the sites I have stumbled upon in the past few days is Strange Attractor (“Picking out patterns from the chaos that is the blogosphere”), which is written by a pair of bloggers named Suw Charman and Kevin Anderson at Corante (which describes itself as “a trusted, unbiased source on technology, business, law, science, and culture that’s authored by leading commentators and thinkers in their respective fields.” — I know nothing about them), and they happen to have very obligingly listed their notes from what appears to have been a very recent conference on “Changing Media” held by the Guardian newspaper. Conveniently for me, the conference was organized into these separate topics, for each of which Sue has made a nice separate posting:

(You can also look at their postings on the introduction and closing remarks of the conference as well.)

The moment I saw the term “Citizen Media” I realized that this is what I had been talking about in the past couple of posts about videoblogging and YouTube and the like: that is to say, “user-generated content” (the tagline of the “Citizen Media” session was “What is the impact of user-generated content on the traditional business model? “).

“Social Media” by contrast, refers to media around which some sort of (real, human) social network can be built, based on shared interests and tastes. One of the speakers was a Martin Siskel of a site I recently discovered, Here is how Suw reports what Martin says about it:

What's so social about our social music network? We put the users in charge. Plug-ins to track what music you listen to. Connects you to similar people, compares your music profile with that of others. Recommends music based on what the people with similar music profiles to you are listening to that you are not listening to. Aggregates information about bands on wiki pages.

1.5 million people on

Although they don’t mention it, this sort of thing must presumably also include sites like flickr, a great site, a site which has created an amazing, dizzying assortment of interlocking communities all its own.

Social Media, I would venture to say, seems to me to simply be a subset of “Social Software” in general. Social Software is software that, as Martin says, “connects you to similar people”. Others have written more than I intend to on social tagging aggregators like furl and technorati and, 43things, and AllConsuming (see for instance my friend Koranteng’s bookmarks on “social” and “tags” — and he’s always a good source of links for further study; and by apparent coincidence, Koranteng appears to have just written a posting on social tagging, entitled, with his characteristic flair, Frisson de Folksonomie).

There’s a big overlap between Citizen and Social Media, as well: YouTube for instance, at least where the clips are “citizen-generated” is precisely both.

I’m not going to try to make too much sense of this but it also seems to me in a way all of this is the flip-side of what people have been talking about with the term “the Long Tail” (and see Koranteng’s bookmarks here and here): i.e. “that products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, if the store or distribution channel is large enough.” I’m not trying to say anything especially profound here: merely that there are a lot of people looking at non-traditional ways of doing business, of connecting with people, of being creative, of sharing their creations. In this vein, I particularly liked the subtitle to the Social Customer Manifesto: "There are no spectators anymore. Participate." (And this time at least, people seem to be looking at these ideas with a little more clear-headedness than in the “it’s the new economy, stupid” days of the dot-com bubble.)

Oh, and you can get another slant on most of the above by reading the Wiki article on Web 2.0.

ANYWAY. What I really want to get to here is the interesting connection (in my mind at least) between all these swirling developments and what is going on with more traditional media. And this is where I come to the topic of Open-Source Filmmaking, which is what I will discuss in my next post in this little mini "series".

I’m not going describe “open source”. If you’re a person who reads blogs you probably already know all about it, and if you don’t, just google it!

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