Tag: social media

The First Step is to Understand Your Audience

by on Nov.23, 2012, under general

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the managing editor at The EvoLLLution. He asked me to write two pieces for a special publication on the Internet and adult education. This article, on how to best use social media to speak to potential students, was originally posted to their site and crossposted with permission.

Quick: what comes to your mind when someone says “social media”?

If you’re like most people, you’ll probably first think of products and platforms. And it’s easy to see why. From Facebook to FourSquare, Twitter to tumblr, YouTube to Yelp, the apparently inexhaustible supply of web developers and venture capitalists produce a torrent of toys to use and amuse. Social media managers, in turn, are defined (and define themselves) by their ability to master multiple media, surfing the crest of the technological wave.

This mental model of what “social media” means is powerful, prevalent, and precisely backwards. It emphasizes the wrong word. The key to understanding social media isn’t understanding the media. It’s understanding the social.

Allow me to illustrate by intentionally invoking an unfashionable example: mySpace. Ask any “social media guru” what mySpace is (or was) for. They will probably say something like “it’s a place for people to hang out and share information with their friends.”

This is both correct and incomplete. You might as well ask what a living room is for. It’s a place for people to hang out and share information with their friends. But what people, and what information?

“Bands, goths, and porn stars, all talking about hookups and bling”, your imagined interlocutor might reply. Also correct. Also incomplete. In a 2007 talk, the researcher danah boyd described how, while conducting interviews for her dissertation, a group of midwestern youth told her that mySpace was “for” organizing Bible studies. These teens were using the exact same medium, with the same formal properties, as the bands, the goths, and the porn stars. But they were a fundamentally different community using (and understanding) it in fundamentally different ways.

Let’s shift to an another example more immediately relevant to the question of adult education. Pinterest is a rising star in part because people believe it to have cracked one of the toughest markets in social media: women. A post on TIME.com declares “Men Are from Google+, Women Are from Pinterest.” TechCrunch claims that Pinterest’s demographics skew disproportionately female.

Suppose these claims are true. Why might that be?

The answer, according to the business and tech press, is found in the formal properties of the medium. Forbes speculates that it is because “women trust other women in their circles more than anyone else.” BusinessInsider makes a beeline to to evolutionary psychology explanations. “Males get a hit of happiness-inducing dopamine to the brain upon the completion of a task whereas females get a continuous stream of dopamine throughout the task,” writes author Dylan Love. “In other terms, males are neurologically rewarded for hunting while females are neurologically rewarded for gathering. As a social pinboard site, Pinterest is the perfect platform for gatherers.”

This is pure bollocks. Who uses Pinterest has nothing to do with the formal properties of Pinterest itself and everything to do with the people who are using it. Tapiture is technologically indistinguishable from Pinterest yet is almost exclusively male. Why? Probably because of significant community overlap with TheChive.com, a male-gazing hub featuring funny pictures and pretty girls. And indeed, in the U.K. at least, even Pinterest itself is mostly male. So much for dopamine streams.

The point I am trying to make is that social media are constituted by the communities which preexist and animate them. The formal properties of the media – or even the media themselves – are, at best, second order concerns.

Here’s why this matters:

The misplaced emphasis on products and platforms isn’t just an epistemological error. It actually interferes with the ends to which social media are employed. It’s not that each new product or platform overpromises and underdelivers (though that happens, too). It’s that they seduce and overwhelm. For any need, no matter how specific, there is or soon will be a corresponding service. Each, on its own, seems a useful, even indispensable, solution to help meet or facilitate some important goal.

But, in the aggregate, the sheer volume of solutions develops a debilitating gravity. For Silicon Valley, frequent failure is cheap and productive. For the communications professional, however, trying to master all these media incurs cognitive costs with compounding interest.

Instead, the key to a successful social media strategy is focusing on the community. Identify your audience. Figure out where, and through what, they are already interacting. Find someone who can relate authentically with your audience and hire them. Then, let them just interact as members of that community customarily do in a given medium.

There is a reason that top startups like Kickstarter have positions like Director of Community Support. It’s because they know that no shiny bells or whistles can replace quality content and conversation. The bad news is that you still have to create quality content and conversation. The good news is that you don’t have to try to keep up with Silicon Valley. All you need to do is understand your audience.

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WePay: The First Bank of OWS, And Why It Changes Everything

by on Oct.21, 2011, under general

(the first few paragraphs are background. old internet hands can skip to the good stuff)

The Occupy Wall Street move has, like the Arab Spring before it, leveraged social media to spread its message. Through tools like Twitter and Facebook – and reddit and imgur and hackernews and countless other sympathetic communities – the members of OWS can spread communicate quickly and laterally, independent of the filtering systems of the dominant, mass-media infrastructure.

We all know this dynamic has collapsed the costs of communications and the need for a communications organization. OWS does not need to rely on media liaisons to penetrate broadsheet journalism and broadcast news. You don’t need videographers when every citizen has a camera and can flood YouTube with police brutality videos. All you need is enough people with enough cameras and the news will find you. You don’t need PR professionals to get you ads in newspapers. You just need enough people posting enough links to Facebook and Twitter sufficient to spread the word through your social networks.

This is, I think, the fundamental insight of Clay Shirky’s fundamentally insightful book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The idea, to paraphrase Shirky, is that in a networked society, you don’t need organizations to organize anymore, because all of the hard, heirarchical work that organizations used to do can be distributed across the network to the individuals themselves. And we’ve seen this insight enacted, time and again, as movements have self-organized, and used the Internet to communicate not only to audiences external to the movement, but indeed within the movement itself.

It is not surprising or new that OWS has made use of this particular dynamic in their communications. In fact, it is now an inevitable characterstic of any given movement that its communications are lateral, and agglomerative, consuming the nodes of the social networks that constitute the digitally mediated publics in which we spend so much of our time.

What is fascinating is how the OWS movement is being financed.

While it’s been true for some time that movements don’t need organizations in order to communicate, funding a movement is a different, and much more expensive, animal. In fact, funding a movement has required an organization with an administrative hierarchy. Want to open a bank account as a new movement? First you’ve got to find a treasurer you can trust and open the account in his or her name, and then you’re dependent on that individual to control the purse strings. Paypal is also tied to an individual. You can’t open either a bank or Paypal account for an organization, let alone a movement.

How do you find that individual? How do you control them? To whom do they report, and who reports to them? How is the money spent? These are all organizational questions, by which I mean they presume – and require – the existence of an organization to answer them. Movements may be able to communicate laterally, without organizational hierarchy, but when it comes to actually doing things – which is to say paying for them – they’ve hit the wall of organizational necessity.

That’s where WePay comes in.

WePay is a service which mediates between banks and groups. As an group – a book club, intramural team, fraternity, whatever – you can create a WePay account that’s registered to the organization, not to an individual member of that organization. Anybody – from a member of your group to a complete stranger donating to the cause – can deposit money in your group’s WePay account, and authorized members of the group can spend it. This facilitates flexibility: if your treasurer leaves / graduates / dies / loses interest, or for some other reason can no longer serve in their professional capacity, your group isn’t stuck. You just move the access along to the new individual. Put another way, it’s a bank account for your corporate person.

WePay has effectively become the bank for the OWS movement. Supporters of the OWS movement have donated tens of thousands of dollars to more than 200 OWS campaigns. The NYCGA campaign alone has raised over $100,000 through WePay at the time of this writing.

Notice I say “bank for the movement.” There is not, and may never be, an OWS organization. But there is the OWS movement, constituted of countless individuals loosely arranged around a common set of causes, beliefs, and calls to action. For a dispersed movement, the costs (practical and philosophical) of setting up a rigid organization with financial authority would be tremendous. Potentially life-threatening. But with WePay, that isn’t necessary. Instead, anyone interested in joining the movement can create their own campaign, setup a WePay account, and begin collecting and disbursing funds. Anyone interested in contributing can.

WePay has not only democratized the means of fundraising for political movements. It’s disembodied it. It’s completely crushed the conceptual space inhabited by organizational fundraising, doing to it what folksonomies did to taxonomies. Want to raise money for an OWS campaign in Seattle, San Francisco, or Staten Island? Go ahead. Disagree with the way the folks in Zuccotti park are spending their money? Create a new campaign for Battery park. Skeptical that the money is going to the right place or right things? There’s an app for that. OWS on WePay is all part of the same movement. It’s just moved outside the form of a traditional organization.

Do you see why this is a such a radical, fundamental shift for movements? You don’t need to find a treasurer anymore. You don’t need to elect a governing board. You don’t need to impose an administrative hierarchy just in order to get things done. Sure, these things might help achieve certain goals in a mature movement, where the positions and proposals are crystallizing into political action and the legitimacy conferred by a central authority is worth its weight in transactional costs. But for a complex, diffuse startup movement like OWS, the costs of funding it, just like the costs of communicating about it, have collapsed below the organizational level.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the rest are all services which help movements spread their message and actions. That is their key intervention in the political process. That is the work they do in the world.

Well, WePay has become a service intervention which helps protestors fund their message and actions. It does to administrative costs what social network sites did to communications costs. That’s its “killer app.” We have not seen this before. It is new. It is real. It is powerful. And it is only beginning.

edit: I’ve received some initial feedback to the effect that I’m crediting WePay for what protestors did in the streets. That’s not my intention. WePay didn’t create the protests, and WePay’s existence was not a necessary condition for their continuation.

To condense my argument: A common problem when you’re kickstarting a movement is that the costs of establishing a financial hierarchy exceed the benefits of the money you’re likely to get at the beginning.

WePay’s essential function is to drastically lower the transaction costs of collecting and disbursing money on behalf of groups. It is arbitraging what was previously a systemic inefficiency in raising and spending money. That’s the key difference here and that’s what it’s brought to the OWS protests, in the same way that Facebook made it really, really easy to share links with all of your friends.

That is not a determinative change. The protests would have happened without WePay, and they would have been big without WePay. But it is a big change in the way movements can fund themselves.

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Nobody Knows What Google+ Is Yet. And That’s Awesome.

by on Jul.28, 2011, under general

This article about the implications of Google+ came across my desk today. It’s a quick post discussing the potential implications of Google+ for higher ed recruitment – whether or not you could (or should) Hangout with prospective students, etc.

It’s a good article, but it’s also premature.

The thing about Google+ is it isn’t a thing yet. By that intentionally inarticulate statement I mean we don’t yet know what the norms and expectations of Google+ are.

Norms and expectations of sites are always changing. What Facebook was in 2006 is very different (for better or for worse) than what it is in 2011. And it’s always a moving target.

But at least with Facebook, if you have the faintest idea of what you are talking about (which admittedly many don’t) you can only be so wrong. You can only be so far ahead or behind of a known target.

Not so with Google+.

You might look at Google+ and say “well, it’s just like Facebook, except that it’s got a slightly different privacy architecture, and it’s also just like Twitter, except the asymmetrical following has a different social substrate, and it’s just like Skype, so none of this is really new, they’re just all in the same place now.”

This argument is alluring. It’s also wrong. When all of these admitted analogues are in the same space it’s an entirely different dynamic. A jewelry store, a Burger King, and a Hot Topic are all distinct social spaces. Together, they’re a mall. And the sociology of a mall is not the sum of the sociologies of its stores. It’s something else entirely.

The same argument was made about Facebook in its early days (oh, it’s just photos + messageboards + email). It was wrong then. And it’s wrong now about Google+ – and it’s wrong exponentially. Facebook was a service built atop a combination of popular web standards. And Google+ is a combination of those services.

Google+ may yet flop. But I don’t think it matters if it does. It’s the first well-designed combination of all of these services. Whether or not it “kills Facebook”, it’s worthy of study and interesting on its own. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a change in the social media field. It’s going to be incredible to watch.

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Gladwell’s “Small Change” Misses The Mark

by on Oct.08, 2010, under general, media

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Small Change, published in last week’s New Yorker, the author (essentially) argues that social media is not only different from “true” social activism, it’s actually irrelevant to and perhaps hurting it.

My response – sadly unsolicited by either Gladwell or TNY, but sent as a letter to the latter nonetheless – is below:

In “Small Change”, Malcolm Gladwell made what has become a fashionably contrarian claim: that social media’s contribution to activism has amounted to little more than “helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

And in some respects he’s right. Gladwell correctly identifies the “Twitter Revolutions” of Iran and Moldova as nothing of the kind. There is scant evidence that Twitter actually helped folks inside Iran or Moldova, as opposed to simply give CNN something to talk about. Closer to home, the unhappy truth is that millions of teenagers sending texts and $10 to Obama didn’t transform him into a latter-day F.D.R.

On the other hand, Gladwell ignores examples from Shirky’s book (which he cites for the phone example) that weaken his argument. Kate Hanni’s use of social media to organize disparate dissatisfied passengers into the collective FlyersRights.org was a driving force behind the Passenger’s Bill of Rights. Voice of the Faithful, the organization of lay Catholics which drove the torrid response to the 2002 sex abuse cases, relied on social media to expand beyond its Boston origins. And Wikicrimes, a site which began mapping experienced crimes and police corruption in Fortaleza, Brazil, allowed its citizens to challenge local authority and evade police brutality as they couldn’t before.

Gladwell is right that we shouldn’t confuse texts and tweets with boycotts and sit-ins. But the two need not be mutually exclusive. Two million people texting may not be as effective as two hundred people sitting at a counter – but if, out of the two million texts, two hundred people sit at a counter where they would not have done so before, nothing has been lost. Social media need not be a substitute for real activism – the two can, and do, complement each other.

Gladwell’s argument holds true only if they do, in fact, become substitutes – if nascent activists content themselves with sending a text when they would otherwise be demonstrating. That is a real danger, and it may even be true. But it’s also a point Gladwell didn’t attempt to prove – or, truth be told, even care to make.

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