Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fluffy Social Media


Before I get excited about this new “social media” I have to ask: who are these folks being “social?”

 I’m not the only skeptic. In the last month two new Canadian mayors have been elected. In the aftermath of election night, lots of news stories have appeared about how their success was from using social media. For the new mayor here in Calgary, because he was a Mount Royal University professor, reporters harped on how his youthful supporters knew how to tweet and twitter. How gratifying, then, that a respected consultant, "liberal party spin doctor" and writer, Warren Kinsella, wrote a local newspaper column to say “victory from social media” ain’t necessarily so. There is no magic bullet for elections.

I’ve met Kinsella often, although he wouldn’t remember me: His last year at the University student newspaper was during my first half-year there. Small world. Yes, I’m feeling (small world) old, and yes, I have never once used my thumbs to “text” (verb) but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for “angry old me” to be cynical.

Here’s what’s happened:

One of my favorite essay\bloggers, Scott Berkun, has recently been asked to do an Andy Rooney style ending commentary for a TV series, from the University of Washington, called Media Space. The first episode was about a “lol (laugh out loud) cats” site. Berkun put his commentary on his web site. I liked it.

Berkun’s piece, if I might over-simplify, said the culture of lowbrow humor, like the wildly popular lol cats, may also be enjoyed by those who love highbrow, and that it’s a mistake, although fun, to polarize the two cultures. He said popular is not best, and asked how can we use the popular as a Trojan horse to bring in the better? He ended:

"But where are the tools for making real works of art, or expressing thoughts and ideas with deeper and longer effects than just a few moments of laughter? That’s what I’m still looking for. If you’re looking too, let me know."

If Berkun’s piece has more than one idea, then it is partly so he could inspire more than one trail for thought. Likewise, the first comment to his piece also gave other readers a chance to go in several directions, if only to say, “I like essays too.” It went:

When I was in elementary school, during network TV, I often heard that TV was aimed at the level of an eight year old, while newspapers were written for a twelve year old level. The issue is not the average consumer of each medium, but the lowest common denominator.

Other examples of differing audiences would be blue and white collar, written sf and Hollywood sci-fi. (Asimov called it eye-fi)

While People Magazine can show from its cover that it is not as demanding as The Economist there are as yet no easy indicators for the web. It’s as if two audiences are sharing the same medium… leading to expectations that the web will be for TV people. Hence even computer industry people may complain when a computer programmer (Stevey) writes long (by their expectations) essays.

It’s too bad, because I would hate to see essays fail to flourish in this brave new medium. Perhaps we need to develop indicators to manage expectations.

If that unpolished comment sounds suspiciously like someone was reading my June Essays and Blogs piece, well, someone was: The comment was by yours truly.

Before I show what direction the second comment took, let me say that Berkun has (I think he said) 20,000 readers on his “RSS feed,” (Sort of like a google page) as well as guys like me who have him Bookmarked on their favorites list. Some of the folks might be stereotypical computer nerds, that is to say, anti-social, but still, I think any blog that reaches 20,000 people is “social.” If one in a hundred had something to say then that’s 2,000 comments. If only one in a thousand felt moved to speak then that’s 20 replies. In fact, I have found it common for Berkun to get 10 or 20 comments.

For Berkun’s piece the second comment did not refer to essays, nor to Berkun’s “… tools… works of art… thoughts and ideas…” Neither did someone reply to say, “Yah man, I like lol cats too.” For the second comment… there was no second comment.

What? Did my reply chase them all away? “How could they do this to me?” (And to Berkun) When I expected others would reply too, was I being na├»ve? I won’t be anymore. It’s time to pout a little, sigh, and then re-think. Being a person who loves “works of art” and “thoughts” I am sorry to revise my opinion of my fellows, including folks doing this hyped up social networky thingy.

It’s as if social media and e-blogs and computers are for fluffy sound bites, the fluffier the better. Like those fluffy lol cats. As it happens, Berkun is a respected computer and business consultant; his audience of 20,000 is in the business and computer world.

In my opening line I asked, “Who are these folks being ‘social?’” They say computer guys, such as Berkun’s followers, are “the smartest of the smart.” If even they are fluffy or silent—in this case silent—then you can “just imagine” the folks doing social media… Today angry old me is a tired old me, very tired.

Next time anyone tries to tell me that computer people are “smart,” I will remember those 20,000. Or I will just remember the guys on the telephone at tech support.

Sean Crawford, Calgary October 2010

Footnote: I don't like to comment too much at once: If there had been further social dialogue for Berkun's piece then I would have chimed in about Christopher Stasheff's The Warlock in Spite of Himself series. Wikipedia says the first book, at least, is a thinly-veiled commentary on the proper uses of democracy and government.

As I recall, probably from the prequel, there was a scene of two grave diggers, actors, making a TV show for a pop culture audience. A certain undead creature is going to arise because some one will remove the stake from his heart. It has happened before, down the ages. In the show, to educate the audience about history, the actors recite the history of several kings and dynasties where the undead rose. In the book, the TV producers are shown doing this as a deliberate Trojan horse to teach culture.
(I can't resist saying that Stasheff and his family were at CON-Version once) 

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