Thursday, September 1, 2011

Getting Over "Social Media"

A LinkedIn member recently proposed that we need a new definition of "social media"—without, unfortunately, offering a clue which of its many, continually evolving definitions might require revision.

I don't think we need a new definition of social media. I think we need to get over it.

When we are able to accept it as no more exceptional than ordinary conversation it will finally achieve the status of an unremarkable, unnoticed, natural and ubiquitous human activity. It will become simply, as Brian Solis points out, "media."

The end-point of the evolution of "social media" is its disappearance from our collective consciousness. It's when nobody ever asks about it or thinks about it, much less promotes it or professes to understand it better than other people. It's when the phrase becomes meaningless. Once everybody is a "social media expert," nobody will be—and that's when it will have achieved all it can.

I detest the phrase "social media."

All media are "social." The word means "relating to human society and how it's organized, relating to the way people in groups interact and behave toward one another, living (or preferring to live) as part of a community."

All communications media have a role in organizing society, uniting or dividing communities, and establishing standards of behavior. It's the nature of communication; defined by James Carey as "a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed." "Society," Carey tells us, "is possible because of the binding forces of shared information circulating in an organic system." The purpose of all media is to share information and, thus, bind society together—to be social.

While traditional media may seem to lack the participation of the audience as producers—which is generally considered a defining characteristic of "social media"— even newspapers invite letters to the editor, radio stations broadcast calls from listeners, and American Idol asks viewers to vote.

People certainly talk with one another about the content of all media. We join reading clubs or chat about books with our friends. We discuss TV programs at the water cooler. We buy things, sell products, vote, and form relationships based on media messages.

Thus, "traditional" media's social aspects extend beyond its physical or audio-visual manifestations, and I think it's wise to think of any medium as including not only those manifestations, but also its extended social influence. In that sense, some part of the "Arab Spring" uprisings and the recent demonstrations at our local rapid transit stations here in San Francisco are not merely the results of, but also components of communications media. Cause and effect are parts of the same phenomenon, and part of any medium is its intended or unintended social effects. We are all radio, and it is us.

We use the term "social media" to lump together all manner of Internet-enabled, audience-participation communication solutions: Facebook and LinkedIn, Quora and Pandora, Twitter and Foursquare, Yelp, Digg, Flickr, Google Groups, multi-user games, and hundreds if not thousands more. I propose that this "lumping" does a disservice, distracting our attention from the unique attributes, functionality, and uses of each.

Some respondents to the LinkedIn question proposed that the coffee houses and pubs of old were the social media of their day. So were newspapers, as the literate few read them to groups of friends and neighbors who discussed their contents. Nobody bothered to call all of these "social media" or needed to think of them as anything other than what they were.

"Social media," the term, serves only two purposes, it seems to me. It's a handy buzzword to give cachet to the products of entrepreneurs and thereby capitalize on press and public fascination with such things; and it's shorthand to express that a particular medium is new, participatory and, probably, Internet-enabled. It's a disguise, not a description. It conceals the social aspects of all media.

I'm rather tired of hearing about social media; I'd prefer to use it instead of talking about it. And I wish everyone else would do the same.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Story Time In Blogville

It is a curious characteristic of our unformed species that we live and model our lives through acts of make-believe. – Joseph Campbell

A story making the rounds this week of social networks, blogs, and traditional news media concerns a New York City mother, Nicole Imprescia, who has removed her child from a preschool in that city and sued to recover $19,000 in pre-paid tuition. The mom claims, in part, that the school failed on its promise to prepare her child for a test that is required to enter the City's very competitive private school system.

The headlines deliver tantalizing summaries of the story:

"Mom sues preschool for not prepping 4-year-old for Ivy League" –

"Manhattan mom sues $19K/yr. preschool for damaging 4-year-old daughter's Ivy League chances" –

"Upper East Side Mom Sues Preschool That Killed Her Kid's Chance at an Ivy League in Just 3 Weeks"
– The Village Voice Blogs

"New York mom sues elite preschool for being 'one big playroom'" –Reuters

There's usually more to these stories than the media reveals—and less. Several news reports claim the child was only in the school for 3 weeks: not true. As the New York Times reported, the girl had attended for a year, happily enough. Then, as her second year started, the school placed her in a class of younger children—contrary to its advertised policy. Mom took the child out of the school after 3 weeks and asked for her tuition money back, saying the school did not deliver on its promises to segregate students by age and to provide age-appropriate learning activities.

When the school refused a refund, Mom sued—claiming misrepresentation and breech of contract. The lawsuit points out that the school did not live up to its claim to group kids by age and prep the toddlers for the standardized ERB test. It claims that such prep has tangible value, which the school did not deliver and that, therefore, Mom is entitled to recompense.

To bolster its claim of lost tangible value, the suit cites studies about the value of early childhood education, including one that suggests a relationship between attendance at "better" grade schools and admission to Ivy League universities. The suit does not claim that the school spoiled the child's chances of Ivy League admission, yet that is what some news outlets have gleefully reported.

We like stories that confirm our preconceptions about such things as pageant moms, desperate helicopter parents, and ridiculous litigation. Such narratives support our mythology and we eagerly lap them up to sustain our beliefs. Consequently, people like this story and pass it around and some bloggers—and even otherwise-respectable news organizations—twist the facts for a better fit.

In reality, it isn't so much a story about a rich, pushy, upper eastside mom; it's a more boring matter of contract law, exaggerated to make it more interesting and emotionally stimulating by inciting public outrage and demonizing and holding Ms. Imprescia up to ridicule.

Put yourself in her position. If a school had promised your four-year-old a placement with children of the same age in an environment of age-appropriate learning activities—but installed her instead with two-year-olds learning the names of shapes and colors—would you not demand that the school live up to its promises? Wouldn't you ask for your money back? Were I the headmaster of the school, I'd have returned her dough on first request; it's the right thing to do when a seller is unable, for whatever reason, to deliver the promised product.

It's curious that we tell ourselves we live in an age of consumer empowerment, in which individuals are better able to stand up against unethical or indifferent corporate behavior and the public can hold businesses to higher standards of customer service. And yet when such an instance as this comes along, reason, truth, honesty and perspective go by the wayside, trumped by a narrative fiction—or at least a flimsy interpretation of the facts—that sustains one or more emotionally appealing myths.

Myths are good things. Joseph Campbell wrote that they are "the supports of their civilizations, the supports of their moral orders, their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers." But they can also be traps that ensnare us in fiction and conceal the truth.

Campbell also wrote: "lies are what the world lives on, and those who can face the challenge of a truth ... are finally not many, but the very few." This is the challenging truth behind the popularity of this story: we hear and believe what we choose to believe—and the facts matter little, if at all.

An even more frightening truth is that journalists are frequently the same, in that respect, as the rest of us.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

As the Saying Goes...

There is an old Chinese saying that goes: "He who swims in the soup ends up with noodles in his ears."

Actually, there isn't such a saying—or wasn't until now—because I just made it up. But there ought to be, don't you think?

Old Chinese proverbs are very useful because they contain lessons about life, the universe, and everything else—rather like the writings of the sagacious Douglas Adams. Douglas was not Chinese and, sadly, he did not live to be old. But had he lived longer, Chinese or not, we would all be wealthier for his wisdom and our lives would be more jolly for his humor. One might say the same of Kurt Vonnegut, but for the part about dying young (eighty-four: not too bad).

People seem to respond to old Chinese proverbs with nodding heads and knowing smiles and to remember and repeat them because they contain (or seem to contain) useful wisdom wrapped in wit and tied with concise little bows: good things in small packages that can be kept in a pocket and handed out to those who need them.

I understand that people tend to believe these old aphorisms partly because they are old and have survived the tests that time gives all ideas. They have gotten the thumbs-up of many generations, so there must be something to them and they must deserve our respect and merit our consideration.

Nevertheless, I believe we need more of them—new old Chinese sayings—because, as we all think we know, contemporary humans have small attention spans, so brevity appeals to us. Short messages, such as "Liberals are Nazi Communists," and "global warming is a fraud," are about the only kind to which we are able to give our attention these days, so some new pithy proverbs ought to be highly marketable and well received.

We also need new old Chinese sayings because the world has changed. There are probably old Chinese proverbs still on the books that are no longer meaningful or relevant to us. Take, for example: "He who plants the okra may frighten the fish." This saying perplexes contemporary Americans, as most have no idea what it means and can take no value from it.

(Full disclosure: the foregoing is not an authentic old Chinese proverb. Once again, I have just now made it up—but only because I am not sufficiently familiar with the full canon to cite a real one that is anachronistic to modern Westerners. I am sure there are plenty of them, though, and the okra and fish thing will have to do for now. I use it only to make a point, and I think it does that rather well if somewhat fraudulently.)

The point I intended to make with it is this: we could do with some new old Chinese sayings that are more relevant to our times.

For example, the ancient Chinese would never have been able to write: "When one sleeps on the Internet, a peasant in Kosovo can hear the snoring." I have not yet figured out exactly what that proverb might mean, but I know that no philosopher of old Heilongjiang province could have come up with it because Kosovo did not exist until February 17, 2008.

Now, modern American businesspeople are fond of garish and moderately witty language such as, "let's drill down on this," and "we need to facilitate cross-pollination," and "I don't have the bandwidth," and "go after the low-hanging fruit." They use this kind of metaphorical language, with no apparent embarrassment, in writing and speeches and informal chats. But these are only phrases in the off-the-shelf business-speak "toolbox" that people use to simulate sagacity and imply their membership in the International Confederation of Way Cool Business Obfuscators. No harm in that: valid motives and worthwhile pursuits, I suppose.

Imagine, though, the prestige and admiration one might enjoy by developing a habit to coin entire new platitudes: full sentences, not mere phrases; complete and tidy aphorisms, unfathomably deep and containing axiomatic meanings. To engage in such a practice might lift one, in the eyes of one's peers, from middle management functionary to philosopher king—with all the attendant rights and privileges. With time, one might gain a reputation as a maker of maxims, not a gabbering mockingbird, but a soaring inventor of the next cliché—and the one after that.

The Nation needs you, builders of platitudes, seers of sayings, oracles of adage. Go forth and speak whole truths in tiny packets. And, if you fear the prospect of embarrassment, preface your own invented wisdom with the words: "As an old Chinese proverb tells us..." No one will know.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, in which he proclaimed that

...the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Most remembered is his appeal to the nation to "...ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

"My fellow citizens of the world," he continued, "ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Today I read in the SF Chronicle the opinion that "Were it uttered by a modern politician, Kennedy's famous 'ask not' call to service might well be derided as a socialist pitch for more government."

Despite Liz Sidoti's critique, Kennedy was right then, and his words are as inspiring and as worthy today, his message and his entreaty as essential or more so.

Forty-eight years later, President Obama observed in his inaugural address that

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics ... the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

Sadly, Obama misjudged. A short and eventful two years later, the nation is deeply, but one hopes not irretrievably, divided—more than at any time in recent memory. Petty grievances, recriminations and even hostility choke political discourse.

The political controversy may target the details of health care reform and tax policy, deficits and earmarks. We wave our fingers are wag our tongues over which faction is most out of touch with the "will of the people" and which rhetoric is more poisonous than another.

But these are only stand-ins for the real battle. We are fixated on competing ideologies and engaged in an uncivil cold war over the role of government, the meaning of society, and the obligations of citizens: to one another, to their nation, to the peoples of the world, and to the Earth itself.

One side would return us, gleefully, to an era we thought was well behind us: a time of, at best, indifference to our fellows and at worst, bloody tooth-and-claw conflict; of greedy self-interest; and of ideology over pragmatism, charity, and goodwill.

President Kennedy reminded us that, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." He proclaimed that "civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof... Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."

Those are words that each of us—and our government—ought to live by. We might begin by acknowledging the truth of the words with which Kennedy began his address half a century ago: that his inauguration marked, "...not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom."

Political victory is impermanent, and triumph not an end in itself. The winner's reward is not permission to impose its will, but a responsibility to govern in the interest of all.

The GOP's proclaimed foremost goal—to ensure President Obama's defeat—is not worthy of us, nor of that party. Its cynical and purely symbolic show of force to undo the long-overdue improvement of our health care system is merely a provocative affront that only panders to extremists, while accomplishing nothing. And its pitiful defense of its more strident members' hostile and hate-inciting rhetoric is an abomination.

In Ms. Sidoti's article, political advisor Mark McKinnon, referring to Kennedy's famous passage, says, "Unfortunately, in today's environment, speeches are more likely to say, 'Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what you can do for your party.'"

I repeat again from Kennedy's speech: "Civility is not a sign of weakness." But, apparently, some believe it is.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

These Young People These Days

I've been listening to the audio version of Douglas Adams's "The Salmon of Doubt,"* in which he wrote about our reactions to technology:

1) Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2) Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3) Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I think that's a pretty good description of a principal difference between the tech generation and us old fogies: a difference that extends well beyond our attitudes about technology.

To them, computer and communication devices are just a part of the sea they swim in; to many of us, they're something we fear might drown us, so we either struggle to stay afloat or stay out of the water altogether.

Likewise, the young are more eager to embrace change. Indeed, change is, for them, a constant and a positive condition of their universe. They're less likely to remain loyal to things and ideas and more comfortable with the ephemeral nature of stuff—including professional relationships. They are, for the most part, more practical, flexible, accommodating, ecumenical, and tolerant than my generation ever was.

And they're far more interesting.

Where technology is concerned, we ancients may be happier with information on paper, for example, while my son—who uses computers every day—doesn't own a printer. Imagine that! They access information on demand and are confident it will be there when they need it, while I like to have it in my pocket or a 3-ring binder, just for safety's sake.

I like my books on a shelf, where I can keep an eye on them, while they're adopting electronic readers at an astounding pace not because they're cool gadgets but because they are, in many ways, more practical. I subscribe to a morning paper, which they describe as a fine way—if an environmentally dubious one—to read yesterday's news.

With regard to relationships, Don Tapscott has pointed out** that the young are experts at ad hoc collaboration and at building and working with temporary teams. They don't seem to relish (or expect) the security of long-term employment quite so much as did their parents. To many of them, the prospect of permanent employment may seem like a life sentence, while independence is not a luxury, but a birthright.

While my generation might have kowtowed to the boss in order to keep our jobs—even as we sought a way out—young employees these days makes no bones about their frustrations, ambitions, and willingness to move on. Perhaps that will change as they face the responsibilities of parenthood and mortgages, but candor, I suspect, has become a natural part of the way the world works and disingenuousness is approaching extinction.

The young do not view all relationships as impermanent or avoid enduring and stable ones, but in their personal and professional lives they enjoy far more connections with other people than we oldsters ever had in our younger days.

They influence, and are influenced by, countless "friends" of both the Facebook and traditional varieties. In my school years, I had a few good friends with whom I regularly consulted. Young people today may communicate with, do things with, share ideas with, and learn from hundreds of their peers in the course of a week—or a day.

It's no doubt true that the Internet enables people to associate more readily with like-minded individuals, and that the result of that may be life in a more homogenous and insular pool of relationships. But I suspect it might as likely breed a little more tolerance on certain levels. When you have a lot of friends, you don't need to demand as much of any one of them, nor do they of you. And you end up having a more interesting time to boot.

I think a kind of compartmentalized set of friendships arises among the hyper-connected young, in which one appreciates another for some of his or her qualities and beliefs, while acknowledging and discounting those opinions and behaviors with which one disagrees. And they're comfortable with the fact that many friendships may be provisional, but not necessarily less enduring.

The comfort goes both ways. Young people seem to be honest with one another about the boundaries of their mutual relationships and about their differences. They don't appear to demand absolute loyalty from one another or to expect agreement in all matters. On the contrary, they often revel in their individualities and quirks and they discuss them openly and with good humor.

I think their candor about relationships is rather refreshing, and a characteristic I much admire—even though, as a recent invention, it does go against the natural order of things.

* Douglas Adams, "The Salmon of Doubt," Del Rey (April 26, 2005), ISBN-10: 0345455290, pg. 95.

** Tapscott, Don, "Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation," McGraw-Hill (June 9, 1999). ISBN-10: 0071347984