Friday, April 13, 2007

Social Media Club: Making Sense of the Digital Natives Divide

The Social Media Club is a growing network of social media enthusiasts from many different walks of life, including both the commercially-oriented online crowd as well as academics focusing on media studies. I was invited to speak on a panel for their April Boston area meeting a couple of months ago and so I found myself braving cats-and-dogs rain to join the group in Dedham, Massachussets last night along with other hardy New Englanders. The panel consisted of myself, Judith Perrolle of Northeastern University and Douglas Quintal of Emerson College considering the question of whether the bomb scare in Boston earlier this year triggered by a promotion for the Cartoon Network may have implications for social media.

The short answer was: not really. This was a stunt by a mainstream media company that was using well-established "guerrilla marketing" techniques across the nation to put out a message on portable electronic displays - which in Boston were placed near and under key infrastructure points. Someone implied that perhaps backhandedly the promoters knew that this might get a rise out of the authorities - or that perhaps they even brought it to their attention. Who knows. The bottom line is that the City of Boston was not consulted, and in general good citizens try to keep the protectors of community interests in the loop. By contrast, social media is all about sharing communal interests and self-policing of boundaries of conduct by community members.
In a sense social media is the exact opposite of guerilla marketing: since individuals already have access to powerful tools to create and contextualize content mainstream marketers come to their content to get into the communal flow of things. I think that Judith Perrolle hit the nail on the head when she characterized the ill-fated Cartoon Network campaign as "solid-state spam."

But on the other side of the incident are the younger people who looked at the reaction in Boston and said "They don't get it." That's certainly valid from the perspective of the younger target audience for the Cartoon Network - we all know that if your parents get something it must not be "cool" - but it's also a sign of people who have come to accept that commercial messages can appear anywhere. Social media tends to extend this concept by its ability to make it easy for webloggers and other personal publishers to embed ads on their sites as well as content from other sites. For younger people this is kind of an extension to the logo-laden clothing and accessories that are pervasive in our culture: they "wear"brands on their content the way that they do going to school. So to them seeing the Cartoon Network or any other brand in a public space is not that big a deal. Social media, though, is not really the cause of this, just an extension of a pre-existing branded culture.

But as social media matures I believe that people will become more sensitized to how they are using their personal brands cultivated via their social media persona to endorse other brands in personal and public spaces. Kids - and many adults - are beginning to understand more clearly when people are using advertising to support a personal and community function without prejudice and when the advertising is tainting a person's online persona. Doug Quintal pointed to research of 2,500 young people which indicates that the stereotype of social media enthusiasts as loners/losers does not pan out statistically: their use of social media is pervasive, with the proportion of loner/loser personalities in virtual spaces being about the same as in the real world. So as social media becomes more pervasive marketers are going to have to be increasingly sensitive as to how to present messages more authentically as participants in social media communities rather than as mere commercial wallpaper. Authenticity counts in social media more than artificial "underground" marketing.

This was a fun group that stimulated a lot of thought-provoking discussion about social media and its impact on how we are communicating with one another. I may have second thoughts about taking another long slog through pouring rain to get to the Boston meetings but I look forward to other Social Media Club events in the future.
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