The Economist on “social media”

Does this mean “social media” has peaked? The Economist doing a big take-out on the idea brings back memories of the magazine’s infamous “$5 a barrel oil” cover from the late 1990s, which pretty much marked the turnaround for crude (it’s $73 a barrel now) — another classic example of the “magazine cover indicator.” In this particular case, of course, it’s not the cover story, so I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t mean the end of social media as we know it. In fact, as The Economist describes, things are really just getting started. The main article begins with this:

“The era of mass media is giving way to one of personal and participatory media, says Andreas Kluth. That will profoundly change both the media industry and society as a whole.”

The piece begins with the creation of Gutenberg’s movable-type machine, the printing press, in the 15th century and then quickly segues into the creation of the blog platform Movable Type in 2001 by Ben and Mena Trott as the beginning of the new age of “social media.”

With participatory media, the boundaries between audiences and creators become blurred and often invisible. In the words of David Sifry, the founder of Technorati, a search engine for blogs, one-to-many “lectures” (ie, from media companies to their audiences) are transformed into “conversations” among “the people formerly known as the audience”.

Not everyone agrees with this theory, however. The article quotes media mogul Barry Diller as saying that participation can never be a proper basis for the media industry. “Self-publishing by someone of average talent is not very interesting,” he says. “Talent is the new limited resource.” Others who think along the same lines include Nick Carr of roughtype.com, the former editor at Harvard Business Review who has written in the past about how blogs and social media threaten to turn culture into the lowest common denominator (a charge that is also often levelled at television, with some justification).

Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has also written about how social media relies on a conceit that everyone wants to (or has time to) become a creator of media, and also that in any cases people don’t really have much worth saying or contributing. I responded to this with a post of my own, in which I accused Scott of being an elitist (he responds to me in the comments). The Economist quotes Jerry Michalski on this topic:

Not everything in the “blogosphere” is poetry, not every audio “podcast” is a symphony, not every video “vlog” would do well at Sundance, and not every entry on Wikipedia, the free and collaborative online encyclopedia, is 100% correct, concedes Mr Michalski. But exactly the same could be said about newspapers, radio, television and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

There are a whole series of related articles that go along with the main one, and are definitely worth reading, including one on blogging (entitled “It’s The Links, Stupid”), but most of the related pieces are for paying subscribers only. One is about wikis, another is about business models, and so on. Is it worth paying just for those? You’ll have to be the judge of that. There are also audio interviews (which should be called podcasts, but aren’t) with the writer of the main piece, as well as Dave Sifry of Technorati.com and several other sources that appear in the stories.

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