At the Digital Hollywood conference last week, Matt Cohler, Facebook’s VP of Strategy said that he thinks of this new media environment as being mostly centered around User Generated Programming, rather than thinking of it as User Generated Content. Many at the conference spoke of how Facebook is becoming their primary filter for using the Internet, and that they discover most of their new music, books and video via recommendations on friends’ Facebook pages, and rarely surf mainstream media sites. An audience member at one panel said he cringes every time he gets a regular email on his new iPhone, but looks forward to Facebook emails because Facebook formats perfectly on his phone, whereas his regular email is slow and clunky.
With the emergence of social networks and social media , we are witnessing the evolution of the Internet, in which the very DNA of the Web is becoming structured by and around social networks and mirrors off-line societal constructions. Online constituencies and groups are forming and overlapping in an endless interchange of ideas and media, forming their own rule sets and agendas, lingos and creeds. From politics, to sports, to music and marketing, social networks are becoming the new Agora, an all-encompassing marketplace of politics, ideas and objects.
The digital structure of the Internet, its very hardware, ensures conformity and provides a construct that enables social networks to form organically. It’s why we call algorithmic-based search “organic”, whereas paid search is “managed.” The premise of organic content, like organic search, is that it exists because individual, non-corporate interests are expressed in the form of informational and educational fan-sites, hobby sites, government sites, and discussion forums. (In its purest form, Affiliate Marketing programs are simply where users with similar interests share their traffic.) Sites are non-organic, or managed, if the site publisher is paying to promote the site and drive traffic to it. A recent example is Ask.com, whose recent $100 million ad campaign (see: www.techcrunch.com) is largely traditional, managed and corporate, and thus the Ask brand seems inauthentic and less organic. Google grew most its traffic organically, so even though it has become the multi-billion dollar titan of online advertising, the Google brand still seems hip and organic when compared to Ask. The emerging Internet generation is immune to broadcast style, push-style advertising and as such, only companies that master the art of active engagement and conversational marketing will thrive. If Ask’s new universal search is really such a great experience, and perhaps it is, they would be wise to spend more of their budget on online word-of-mouth, and less on TV ads.
Online social media platforms conform to specific rules and processes just as they empower political conformity. Ideologues of all stripes can log on, surf their favorites, and never encounter political ideas different from their own. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of the new social network based Internet. In the broadcast media dominant environment of the 20th century, citizens had only three main TV news sources, and each source had to present fair and balanced stories, because they needed to attract audiences across the political spectrum. But, starting in the 1980s, as we went from 10 TV stations, to 100, to 1000 in a matter of 15 years, and then the Internet turned on and quickly accelerated the number into the millions, with each Web site being its own TV station or newspaper. And now Facebook and other social networks, empower ALL users to become their own TV programers, student newspapers, or skate parks, with Virtual Worlds and Second Lives available to all.
This conformity, this tendency of like-minded publishers and channels to congregate with each other, is part of our DNA. For the first few million years of human evolution we congregated in tribes in order to survive. During millions of years our brains became wired to expect and demand conformity. It’s why we feel guilty if we act too selfishly. To succeed in a tribe, on a hunt, or during a drought, everyone needs to share, collaborate and cooperate. If someone is worried too much about herself, or is too weak to keep up, it risks the survival of all. So the crazy, sick or egotistical, were banned, or beaten, or shunned, but as we developed agriculture and then civilization, the powerful, cunning and strong, eventually rose from being tribal leaders, to chieftains, then kings. And so the world of offline politics is playing itself out online, too, with the tribal leaders all vying for control (Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and NewsCorp) just as the masses, via their social networks become more organized and influential. Modern politics can be seen in the context of this balance between the largely tribal need for conformity and the newly empowered individual, whose very independence, freedom and capacity for self-expression is drawn from civilization, from economic models that allow individuals to work on the production of ideas and services, rather than only commodities and basic necessities.