Conversation with Michael Skapinker

I came across this article by Michael Skapinker on FT.com the other day. I had actually heard about it on the day of its publication, but it had come up in a discussion at the London Social Media Club about relationships between PR and bloggers and it didn’t really register. However, as is the way in highly networked social media, it came back to me in a slightly different guise via Constantin Basturea’s useful del.icio.us PR Digest as a post from Melvin Yuan. I must confess Melvin’s post rather lost my interest – but I did follow the link to Michael’s article. When I read it I was struck, not so much by the argument of the article itself, but by the fact that it seemed to be a classic example of a very good “old media” journalist in a very good “old media” publication (albeit on online variant of such) nonetheless failing to really appreciate the difference between the mass media that we have come to know over the last 400 years and this new social media thing – and falling into the classic trap of analysing the new by the standards of the old.

I was therefore motivated to post a comment responding as such – not really expecting a reply – but one came, very promptly, which impressed me, although I am not sure whether he accepted my points or not. He was probably just being polite. Below is both my comment, his response and my follow-up.

Dear Michael,

I am a bit late to this – and I am sure you have already received many many comments. However, I wanted to add to the pile, not least because, as in the manner of a letter to The Times I may well then use the fact of my commenting as a reason to promote my response wider.

You are absolutely right and your article makes perfect sense – provided you hold to two assumptions. First, that this thing you call the internet is a variant of the mass media and can be judged as such in terms of assessment of its impact and the nature of its content. The second, which partially follows from the first, is that you therefore judge the internet as though it were an institution.

In my view, neither of these assumptions hold true.

When I come across people who use the “the vast majority of stuff on the internet is inconsequential rubbish” argument, I say “its not necessarily rubbish, its just of very niche interest”. This usually gets a laugh as indeed is partly my intention. However, in five years time this won’t be a joke, it will be an accepted and unremarkable truth. Quite possibly within the handful of sites that you regard as those useful to run your life will be stuff that almost everyone else will regard as inconsequential rubbish. Indeed, I would suggest that if you don’t have such sites (stuff) you are not spending your considerable time on the internet productively. I will refrain from commenting on the fact that you assess the internet in terms of sites, but my points in the paragraph below may start to give some clue as to why this is an increasingly redundant way of looking at the internet. I would also refer you to the current work of Tim Berners Lee in this respect. This thing called social media (of which blogs are but one small aspect) is shifting the nature of the media from mass appeal to individual relevance as it is also separating content from distribution or structure. This is a difficult thing to get one’s head around because the nature of media defined by individual relevance and not rooted in any particular place is something not seen before – a Black Swan I believe such things are called. Nonetheless, it is an important thing for people in the media to get their heads around it if they still wish to be in what might be called the media in five years time.

To the second assumption. The internet is not an institution. It is not like some vast on-line repository of bits of information, a huge on-line newspaper if you like, which can therefore be judged according to to the way you would judge a newspaper or institution – by its lowest common denominator, its weakest piece of content. The internet is now essentially a process. The best way to understand the difference is to use the example of Michael Skapinker’s brain. If I were to assess Michael Skapinker’s brain as an institution, i.e. simply by looking at the assembled bits of information that sit on its mental shelves, it would not look very pretty. It would, in fact have the appearance of a mess of inconsequential rubbish. Fortunately this would be a foolish way to assess Michael Skapinker’s brain. Instead, the best way to assess it would be to establish its intellect. Intellect is a process, it is what is brought to bear on information to establish meaning. Viewed in this respect, judged by the quality of its process (not its content) Michael Skapinker’s brain becomes altogether more interesting and powerful thing. The switch from institution to process will become one of the defining shifts generated by the rise of social media.

I would therefore ask you to abandon, or at least suspend, your mass and institutional assumptions (one might say prejudices). The internet is a process defined by individual relevance. Use this as your starting point and you will begin to understand why, amongst hopefully many other things, consumers will start to have huge power to influence the behaviour of companies, but not through the mechanism of what you call “internet-backed consumer campaigns”.

Regards,

Richard Stacy

His reply:

Dear Richard,

Many thanks for your very interesting email. I generally agree with your points. The question will be the extent to which this individualised medium will be susceptible to mass action.

Regards,
Michael

My response:

Michael,

Thanks for the reply.

If my experience in this area is anything to go by, the best way to work out how mass action will operate with or through this medium is to look at the way it used to work and then assume that the opposite will apply. Mass action will therefore probably be far less organised, but more organic and its pressure won’t necessarily be generated by focused mass activities but more through collective momentum and mandates. In the future I think that all organisations / institutions will have to operate under a form of mass mandate. Quite how this will actually look or come about is anyone’s guess. I can see how it will operate when it comes to some consumer goods – where I think whole categories will come to operate under a form of mass consumer franchise – but as for other more complex areas and institutions, the future is harder to envisage.

Regards,

Richard

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2 comments

  1. Rebecca Caroe

    But Richard, why is the internet to be judged by one criteria alone, its capacity for “mass action”?

    THere’s a lot more to it than just campaigining…. but maybe that’s the type of journalist Skapinker is. His loss.

  2. richardstacy

    I am not sure why his focus on mass campaigning – I think it is because it is an area where it is possible to compare and contrast between campaigns championed by traditional media and those that go direct via blogs / social media. However, as you say and as hopefully my response pointed out, its not purely about mass any more. A media shaped around the concept of individual relevance will work in a very different way.

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