The emergence of social media technologies has happened so quickly that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The same executives struggling to keep their organizations afloat during this economic downturn are simultaneously trying to make sense out of a radical communications revolution. But, when seeking advice on business uses for these new communications channels, execs are frequently left wading through cliche-infested social media waters, wrestling with terms such as conversation, community, and transparency.
The problem with these colloquial explanations is that they focus more on the social aspects than they do the media ones. The approach is backwards, because social change didn’t drive the revolution, massive advances in the triple-threat of media production, storage, and distribution did. Therefore, the best way to understand social media is to study changes in media technology first, and then apply those changes to what society is choosing to do with them.
I produced a movie in 1977 called The Bionic Girl. It wasn’t a blockbuster or anything; rather, it was a silent film, funded with the money that I made on my paper route. The movie’s cast consisted of friends and family. I wrote, filmed, edited, and produced it. And after completion, I presented it to an audience seated on folding chairs in my parent’s basement.
I chose Super-8 film as my “medium.” Super-8 film came in a cartridge containing fifty feet of coiled celluloid, which limited its capacity to three-minutes twenty-seconds of moving imagery. Since The Bionic Girl lasted about twelve minutes, I needed to purchase four of them! Each fresh cartridge was inserted into a Super-8 movie camera that I had purchased at a local yard sale for $6. Unlike today’s mediums such as magnetic tape, hard drives, or solid state memories, once a cartridge finished running through the camera, it required lab processing after exposure. If my memory is correct, each cartridge cost $3.00 to purchase and another $3.00 to process and the total turn-around time from exposure-to-developed-reel averaged one week.
But the expense didn’t stop there. The four processed reels also needed to be manually spliced together then re-spooled onto its own, much bigger take-up reel. That’s when I learned the business lesson of “total cost of ownership.” Realizing that I had a film yet no way to present it to an audience, I was forced to allocate $99 of budget to purchase a Super-8 film projector!
Finally, since I had chosen the medium of film, I only had three options for distributing The Bionic Girl:
- Use my $99 projector to share it with family and friends
- Send the original film via the post office to folks who had access to their own Super-8 movie projectors
- Send the original to a processing facility for duplication, and then send those copies to people with access to Super-8 movie projectors
Now let’s compare and contrast the my 1977 medium choices with those available today–to everyone, from teenagers to the largest corporations. Today’s cell phones not only contain the ability to create and store text, audio, and video, but a resident ability to distribute that same content to an audience instantaneously. There is no delay for such things as film processing. Consumption of the content doesn’t require special devices like film projectors.
Individuals and corporations can embed their videos onto their blogs and Facebook pages, both which are designed to notify friends/fans/followers/subscribers automatically. If the content is good enough, that first connection of people can in turn forward it to their connections. In 2010, advances in communications technologies allow anyone to capture, store, and deliver their content creations around the world for the nominal cost of internet connectivity.
The barriers to entry for creating and delivering one’s messages around the world have been eliminated. The revolution has created the proverbial level playing field. And therein lies the rub.
Most business owners don’t consider the revolution from the “media” side. Instead, they’re thrown a head fake by the word “social.” They’re urged to use Twitter and Facebook for “social” reasons, without considering the business advantages and responsibilities associated with such channels. Without understanding that these communications technologies offer new ways for the creation, storage, and distribution of content, business owners will never be ready to learn about the “social nuances” required to use them successfully. But, by understanding the media benefits first, then they can address the social implications of their choices.