Annenberg panels explore "Social Media: Platform or Provocation for Innovation?”
Posted November 16, 2009
By Lara Levin
To explore the increasing use of social media and its implications on the media landscape, the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism recently hosted a conference titled "Social Media: Platform or Provocation for Innovation?” (Watch sessions 1 and 2.)
“At a moment of convergence in the media industry, a time when digitalization and the combination of print and online platforms are coming together, this is a school that encourages all these kinds of discussions to take place,” Dean Ernest J. Wilson III said in reference to USC Annenberg’s dedication to investigate these issues.
Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts Henry Jenkins moderated a panel discussing the social and technological innovation surrounding social media.
Citing his most recent research, Jenkins noted significant changes in the relationship of production and consumption and the circulation and distribution of media on both a local and international level. Taking the examples of singing sensation Susan Boyle and the widespread use of Twitter to disseminate news from Iran, Jenkins challenged the notion of viral media, which is often defined as unknowing and involuntary spread.
“This is the wrong way of thinking about it,” Jenkins said. In both of these cases, individuals “responded to information they thought was compelling, actively moved this information into their communities, and used these communities as resources of communication.”
Jenkins called Boyle and Iran examples of “spreadable media” instead of "viral media," as the public has taken responsibility for the distribution of news and entertainment they deem worthy of circulating themselves, and moreover assign value to it.
Engaged in research on how to assess this value, social computing researcher at IBM Research Julia Grace offered an example of social media challenging old tools of market research. Grace cited a study of the Billboard music chart — the established indicator of what is popular on the music scene. This chart only takes into account physical album sales, disregarding digital purchases and downloads. By recording view and listening counts from MySpace Music and YouTube as well as analyzing commentary content on those sites, Grace and her research team compiled their own list. In a survey of college students, they found 90 percent considered IBM’s list to be more representative of their taste while the Billboard chart was not as indicative of what the public wanted.
Returning to the question of distribution, communication professor Dmitri Williams touched upon this idea of what the public wants — and he asserted the public has been largely paying for content they don’t want at all. Citing the common practice of media distributors selling content in bundles, these organizations give audiences a small percentage of what they are actively seeking as well as a large amount of residual content that is of no interest to them. According to Williams, social media are defined by the disaggregation of these bundles of content, as audiences are able to choose what they produce, consume and distribute, lending to a relatively unknown but significantly different future model, where the role of the distributor as the middle man will fade away.
“To me, the future model is going to look something like a vast army of writers and a vast army of readers,” said Williams, and as the panel’s resident provocateur, he went on to ask, “But how are they going to connect?”
While Williams also suggested virtual worlds are a niche and the biological barriers will ultimately prevent them from becoming an integral part of mainstream media, Annenberg senior research fellow Nonny de la Peña said these virtual worlds, such as Second Life, can bring an element of the experiential to media consumption in a model she labels “immersive journalism.”
“Immersive journalism is a novel way to utilize the gaming platform and virtual environments to convey news, documentary, and nonfiction stories,” de la Peña said. “You move through the narrative in the virtual spaces with content based on traditional reporting, using news material from the physical world but offering a first-person interaction with the reportage… Why would we always be interacting in these spaces in 2D when we could interact in these spaces in a 3D way like we’re used to?”
Other key quotes from the first panel:
- “These online social network technologies at their best supplement existing relationships to make them stronger,” Williams said. “A weak is absolutely better than no connection, but you must think about how much space is in your life for the amount of connections and space… A day is a zero-sum equation, and when you take existing connections and you turn them into Facebook ones and they become shallower, that’s a negative.”
- “If we think about Twitter, the central messages of Twitter are, ‘Here I am, and here it is,’ and ‘it’ is information that you otherwise might not see," Jenkins said. "I am proclaiming my daily existence, no matter how unimportant it may seem,” and it is this knowledge of relatively banal details of others’ lives that offer a more intimate look at the personae of our peers.
- Williams on the challenges of diversity and inclusion in the social media platform: “The good news is, it’s possible, the bad news is that it doesn’t seem to be what people are doing when people have the power to self select,” Williams said.
- “We’ve worked hard in the real world to be diverse and inclusive, and we’re still working hard to do so," de la Peña said. "Perhaps we should take those lessons and apply them to our use of social media.”
A second panel moderated by Irving Wladawsky-Berger, head of IBM’s Internet strategy during the mid-1990s and USC Annenberg’s Innovator in Residence, came together to examine the implications of social media on the business model, specifically in the realms of entertainment and journalism.
“There is no question that social media is having a gigantic impact on companies and institutions,” Wladawsky-Berger began, noting also that most companies have seen this impact as a threat. “It’s so naïve — if people are going to say something, they are going to say it whether you like it or not. You may as well embrace it and have a little more ability to influence it, and there is a cultural change that companies have to get through to truly embrace it.”
Melissa Cefkin, ethnographer and research scientist at IBM Research, agreed with this assertion, and challenged the idea that this social media platform is reflecting new behavior. She noted the “tremendous continuity with what we know about society.”
“People have always found ways of connecting and finding each other,” Cefkin said.
Other key quotes from the second panel:
- “That’s what people do anyway," Cefkin said about employees and consumers using social media to voice grumblings and complaints about a company. "Organizations would be foolish to try to outright condemn or forbid the use of social media.”
- “A lot of our parents and grandparents got on Facebook and Twitter before big media got involved in social media,” USC Annenberg executive in residence David Westphal said. “And it has something to do with the near-death experience that big media is going through right now.”
- “They really don’t know what to do with it, and there is perhaps no other industry that is so directly threatened by social media than traditional journalism," journalism professor and director of Annenberg Digital News Marc Cooper said about traditional media.
- “Social networks preexisted IBM and Twitter, and of course we’ve amplified them and electrified them, but in many ways the lateral or horizontal nature of the social network is a much more natural form of social communication than the vertical form that we’ve seen in modern media," Cooper said.
- “We all learn that value comes from scarcity, and when we live in a world where there is no scarcity, where advertising is everywhere, the value of each one declines,” communication professor Jonathan Taplin said about the challenges social media face in terms of generating revenue.
- “The consumer has the same amount of time to consume content as ever, and with an avalanche of content, this leads to fragmentation,” said Steve Canepa, general manager of the IBM Global Media and Entertainment Industry Division, adding that organizations thus find it difficult to retain their core audiences.
- “Without sugarcoating it," Cooper said. "I do think that at least for those of us of a certain age and a certain experience, it’s a privilege to be surrounded by so many young people that have such a different perspective on this than the one that we grew up with.”
Session 1 video
Session 2 video
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