In the old world content had to live within a particular means of distribution – a newspaper, a book, a website. In effect, content had to find its proper place. Short form written news information could only really live within a newspaper. Stories tended to gravitate towards books. Video could only live on the television.
When we talked about content we therefore talked about newspapers, books, the TV etc. We made the assumption that each type of media (means of distribution) was a type of content because what it was and how it was published, were locked together.
This assumption breaks down when you look at social media – especially Twitter. Social media is, to borrow the phrase from Clay Shirky “Global, Social, Ubiquitous and Cheap” therefore you can use it for anything and everything It is a disposable resource, therefore there are no special content rules that apply. Consider what Einstein’s Twitter stream would have looked like. No doubt in there somewhere would have been something like “New post: some interesting thoughts about the relationship between energy, mass and the speed of light”. This might have been sandwiched between “Another day, another ridiculous patent application” and “Anyone up for a few beers and a game of chess this evening?” Would it have been credible to say to Einstein that, frankly he should confine his tweets to weighty matters of science? But what then about Einstein’s friends who might be on for a few beers and a game of chess? And what could you deduce about the quality of his Twitter – containing as it would both some of the most important and original information ever “published” and the day-to-day trivia of his life?
The answer, of course, is that it is pointless to try and classify Einstein’s Twitter as though it were a form of content in the same way that it is pointless to try and classify Twitter itself (or any other form of social media ) as though it were a form of content, forcing it to comply to the rules by which we judged traditional media.
How many times have you heard someone, often so-called social media experts, say of social media “Now everyone has a broadcast channel”? Not true. Why the broadcast bit? The need to be broadcast is a hangover from the assumption that if you have access to a broadcast platform you therefore must ‘do’ broadcast content.
If you look at how people are actually using social media they are not using it to do broadcasting, they are not even using it do narrow casting or any other form of ‘casting’. People are using it to do connecting and the number of people they wish to connect with is usually very small. Very occasionally they connect with enough people for what they are doing to look a bit like broadcasting, but when they do this it is usually accidental – i.e. they accidentally found themselves watching a plane crash-land on the Hudson River. However, this is the exception, not the rule.
Social media is in fact doing away with the very notion of broadcasting and replacing it with something else. No longer is it acts of publication (casting – broad or otherwise) that determines the distribution of content – it is acts of observation, potentially over a long period of time, which will determine how and where that content travels and how it is perceived. Or to put it another way – the act of publication no longer has any scarcity of and thus confers no status upon the content published. We can say anything, and status only becomes attached to our utterances in accordance with their context and / or relevance to a wider conversation. People can use Twitter to talk to the world, or they can use it to talk to themselves. I have seen someone tweet themselves a reminder of where they left their car in an airport car park for example.
Many people, especially journalists, and others in what I call the ‘information elite’ find this a very hard concept to understand. “How can it be”, they say “people have a tool that can talk to the world so when they use it they must therefore be trying to talk to the world?” There is, of course, a wilful element to this confusion. If we cling onto the assumption that social media is a broadcast channel, and the intent of all of those within it is to broadcast, this presents comforting opportunities to dismiss it all as nonsense. It allows the aforementioned information elite to dismiss the efforts of so-called citizen journalists – simply by the act of attaching the label ‘journalist’ to them. They are, of course, not journalists nor do they aspire to be. It allows us to cling onto the comforting myth that people will not want to watch boring home videos in YouTube rather than professionally produced movies and news programmes – despite evidence to the contrary.
But of course the labelling of such content as “boring” is only possible if one assumes an intent for it to be seen by a large number of people. If, however, we were to realise that the intent of submitting a home video to YouTube was only to share it with the people who were in it, it suddenly stops being boring and assumes a level of interest for those that wish to watch it, on a par with the X Factor or other forms of so-called professional content.
This is not just semantics. The widespread presence of the assumption that social media (like traditional media) is a form of content blocks us from understanding what social media actually is. It gives us an excuse to dismiss it or ignore it. It provides a shelter for inactivity. It prevents us from addressing the important issues. Time spent addressing the “Twitter is a fad because it is all celebrity gossip and nonsense” argument is time not spent working out how on earth to adapt to a world when one of the fundamental pillars that has supported the development of most of most of society’s institutions, is crumbling away.