Social Media: One Dead Horse We Can All Flog

by Chris Kenton on February 21, 2007

One feature that I’m finding I don’t particularly enjoy about social media is the disjointed way in which we bang our heads against the wall while failing to achieve much progress in shaping knowledge. One pod of pundits has an interesting discussion about the definition of social media, and some sort to consensus is reached, even if tacit detente. A few weeks later, a different pundit pod has the same discussion, and either the same or a different consensus is reached. Rinse, lather and repeat. At some point, someone links one or more of the pundit pods by a comment, and the whole discussion begins again, with an exponentially declining rate of return of intelligent new insights. It feels like we’re just reinventing academia, but without all the research.

Personally, I feel the discussion over the meaning of social media is important. This is a major milestone in a transformation that has been going on for a very, very long time, and it impacts almost every facet of our society and institutions. Some pundits are sagely discussing the roots of social media in early BBS systems and forums. Is the fad really that old? When my father was an editor for the New York Times, they used to talk about the incredible democratizing revolution of the IBM Selectric Typewriter. Then it was the Wang Word Processor. Then it was Desktop Publishing. And the thread goes back the other way in history to the printing press and before that the advent of velum. This is about how we codify, transmit, archive, shape, share and investigate knowledge. What’s happening now is big. Not bigger than the printing press, but bigger than Wang. Big enough to take seriously.

But when we use the medium to discuss and define the medium the growing pains become obvious. And they really suck. While we’re busily tearing down many of the fundamental aspects of our current knowledge industry–like centralized voices, authority, experts–the chaos of punditocracy makes me feel a little nostalgic. Let’s face it, some bloggers are incredibly insightful on some topics, not on others. Some are eerily omniscent. Others are total hacks. It’s a mixed bag. But with the magic of social media, everyone’s opinion is equal–or at least, as equal as your traffic, which may be directly or inversely proportionate to your actual knowledge on a given topic, but is always aligned with popularity. Or, notoriety. Or, well, the number of links that separate you from someone really popular.

In my profession, Phillip Kotler is the epitome of the establishment. His defining textbook on marketing has sold more copies than McDonald hamburgers. There’s a secretive but growing sect of marketers who assert that every word in Marketing Principles is in fact literally true. I can see why people would want to tear that house down. It’s timeless. I mean, it doesn’t change. By the time I tackled that beast of a book–it was the middle of the dotcom boom–there was no signature Kotler dissection of Brand, or Metrics, or Technology. It was still the four P’s. Important, but not sufficient.

But. At least it was a stake in the ground that we could reference as a starting point, to track with, or to veer away from in a new direction. Today, we have what? Wikipedia? Have you read the wikipedia entry on Marketing? It’s like a collaborative high school project for Intro to Business–an elective for those who didn’t want to take Spanish. I get the concept of Wikipedia, and it’s great. Really. But professional editors provide a real value to those of us who rely on accurate reference information. The problem with Wikipedia is that there’s no indication, and no accountability, for the reliability of an entry. One entry on the history of the Turbine engine may have been written by the guy who actually invented the thing. But when you get to the entry on marketing, it was probably written by three of your interns. And there’s no way to know the difference, unless you’re already well educated about what you’re reading. We can all hate those Encyclopedia Brittanicas, but you know when that behemoth goes to print there’s been a long process of vetting entries. What is the equivalent on the Web?

And this, really, is the crux of the challenge that defines the next big hurdle in social media. With Wikipedia. With Google. With bloggers and social media. If you already know something about what you’re searching for, or reading–or if you generally don’t care about details like accuracy–you’re in pretty good shape to dive right in, and with a little work you can find a whole lot of value. But if you don’t have a foundation to work from, you can really be hung out to dry. What do you believe? Who says? Who’s right? Do you trust Wikipedia, or the top-ranked site on Google? Here’s a juicy little factoid running in library circles after a recent survey: do you know how teenagers determine whether or not something is true? If they can find it written the same way twice on the Web, it’s true. Truth is equal to consistency. Take that, democratized content. RSS is now God.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to stop the merry-go-round and get off. This is a tremendous thing that’s happening, and it’s exciting and rich and full of ideas and energy–if you can muddle through all the noise. I guess I just thought if we were smart enough to create these tools, we would be smart enough to use them in smart ways. At least we should be smarter than that centralized knowledge industry we’re working so hard to pull down. But what I see in my own experience is that we’re not any smarter. We just have newer tools. We play the same games that pissed us off when others played them. We make the same mistakes. We create the same cliques and echo chambers, we relish the same power when we win it, and we weild that power when we can. But we have one big drawback compared to our centroid forebears that makes us dumberer: hubris. We don’t yet grasp the power, or the shortcomings, of the tools we’ve created.

The very real shortcoming that I see us stalled at today for all our tool-making prowess, is the ability to distill knowledge out of all the information we’re generating. Great, so you got 20 comments on your last blog post. What kernal of wisdom can you pull from those posts that will stand the test of time? What form will it take so that others can benefit from and build on that wisdom? And don’t preach to me about search engines making everything accessible. A needle is accessible in a haystack if you know what you’re looking for and have the patience of a saint to find it.

For all the power social media has to democratize information and the shaping of knowledge, it’s useless for anything more than entertainment if we’re not able to actually shape any knowledge anyone can agree on. I know we’re all waiting with bated breath for another YouTube, or an iTunes killer, but I what I’m really dreaming of is a dynamic distiller that can help me trawl through the information on my site to distill and categorize kernals of knowledge. I don’t want to tag it, or bookmark it, or Digg it. I want to distill the data so people don’t have to trawl through the scrap heap looking for something worthwhile. When data is distilled on my site, maybe it can be shared and distilled across related sites too. Then maybe instead of each pundit pod reinventing the same dialog, we can argue over which distillation packs the biggest punch.

The alternative of course is to keep nursing our egos and leveraging our linkbait. But without eventually inventing ways within social media to distill the dialog, we’ll turn content democratization into knowledge atomization–a world in which whatever you believe is true and no one can prove you wrong. Oh wait, was that why we wanted to get rid of experts and authorities in the first place?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Patricia February 21, 2007 at 4:48 pm

So true, Chris. I’m square in the middle of the target audience to find a discussion of PR for social media interesting and relevant. Yet I grow annoyed with rather than enlightened by most of the free-for-all discussions in the blogosphere. Without SOME ring leader to pull out that kernel of wisdom you mention, it’s all just a lot of noise. It also risks devolving into an online pissing match. No one wins when the putative objective is simply to yell loudest and have the last word.

Chris Kenton February 21, 2007 at 8:55 pm

Hi Patricia–

I don’t want to get cynical, but we’ve seen this pattern already entrenched in politics, academia and big business. We have so much faith that the technology is going to make it different this time. But it’s not a foregone conclusion. Just as the technology can be used to democratize content, it can also be used quite effectively to build little walled gardens, and reinvent the old-boy networks in newer Web2.0 dressing.

Okay, I’ll stop kvetching now. I have some ideas for an approach to the distillation I mentioned. I need to push that foreward now that I’ve cleared my chest.

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