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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On Symbols, Value, and Shared Meaning

The purpose of media is to facilitate communication. The purpose of media is not to deliver messages. That can be done in-person, a slower but effective method. What media does is intermediate - allowing communication to scale, asychronous, repeatable, and add elements like video or audio not possible in-person. Different media channels have taken advantage of different strengths of media. The broadcast model of the 20th century focused on scale but required audiences to consume what was presented to them. This was true for traditional media (print, radio, television) as well as non-traditional sources -- movies, plays, museums. This model distributed content which was then used to star between other people (e.g. think 'water-cooler' conversations). Social media, in contrast, lowers the barrier of intermediation because it focuses on enabling person-to-person communications. (Because the tools are flexible, it can also be used similar to broadcast media but the consumer landscape has changed enough to make this less effective.)

Social media is also different from other media channels in a distinct way -- distributed, near-real-time interaction. This creates an immediate feedback loop, allowing not only for instant reaction to content but active audience participation in creating the direction of future content. The purpose of social media is to facilitate communication. Trying to adapt the tactics of broadcast media tools simply cannot be successful. We must bring a fresh set of eyes and learn anew how to use these media effectively.

On Symbols

The point has been argued that we are not able to distinguish the symbol from the thing the symbol represents. I agree with the argument and would add Social Media to the list of places we confuse the symbol and the meaning. As I mentioned above, the purpose of social media is to facilitate communication. This is a deliberately broad meaning because the diversity of social media allows for significantly different kinds of communications to take place. The most common symbol in social media is a connection -- often called following or friending. These connections (the symbols) signify both parties willingness to communicate with each other (the meaning).

What frequently happens in social media is that the symbol (the connection) is seen at the reason for joining a social media network. The number of connections then changes from an expression of how interested they are in listening to and communicating with diverse voices to a symbol of broadcast-era authority based on how widely they can distribute their content. The pursuit of the symbol fails to recognize the value of the meaning behind it.

On Value

The immediacy of the social media feedback loop as well as the volume of connections being made on social networks is leading to a culture that makes snap judgments of unsolicited connections. Social networks are considered to be the potential next step for search, in which the network of connections filters content and helps the searcher arrive at their answer. This is happening with the connections themselves as well, the network acts as a filter. A connection from someone through a shared network is more likely to be accepted than a request from someone unknown.

The way to gain acceptance in these networks is to look past the symbol (the connection) and begin with an understanding of the value you can you offer to create meaning. The ethos of sharing in social media requires all participants to have some value they can add to the communication. The definition of the value is co-created by the connected parties but requires each participant to join prepared to share what they consider to be of value. This often takes the form of information but it can also be notifications -- as pointers to information or to transactions.

By considering the value that can be added to a social media channel, the participant is forced to look past the symbol of being connected and into the meaning of how they can facilitate communication.

On Shared Meaning

Related to the immediacy of feedback through social media channels is the concept of 'shared meaning.' I feel this term is more accurate than 'relationship' because not everyone wants to join a toothpaste community. In some cases, the need for close, personal connections is neither necessary nor desirable. Rather, the connected parties co-create a space in which they are able to provide value in a way that is meaningful in that context. Again, this is one of the strengths, and differentiators, of social media -- successful experiences are created by both the producer and consumer of content. Where in a broadcast model, the producer of content would look at measures of consumption and make assumptions about what the audience is willing to accept, under a social media model the consumers are much more likely to state their preferences directly.

The greatest challenge facing participants in social media -- especially as social networks include more company/consumer connections -- is tempering the desire to push one sides desired meaning onto the other. The mantra of "Listen First" is not a platitude; listening intently to the other participants in social media helps you understand what value they have to offer and where they are looking for added value. The strongest ties are created when shared meaning is truly co-created by the community. And when a community reaches this point, people can remain active for years.

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