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A "Great Stagnation"?--NOT!!

Not One But Many Kinds of "Social Media"

Tom Slee on "Social Media":

Blogs and Bullets: Breaking Down Social Media - Whimsley: Once we give up on the "tendency" and "on average" arguments around digital technologies, the Internet takes its place as one part of the real world, not a separate entity.... In the early 1990's there was much talk of a "new economics" of the Internet, but in the end it turned out that - with a sharpened focus on increasing returns - traditional economics did explain much of the industrial organization of the digital realm. At the same time there was much talk of how the Internet would break down legal barriers, but such barriers have proven surprisingly resilient.... What smaller-scale structures would we talk about, if we give up the grand themes of "social media"? Here is a rough sketch of one division.

Internet-based social network platforms: Centralized, commercial, privately-owned and advertising-driven, the YouTwitFace world is obviously one of the big stories of the moment. The cost structure of such businesses make them natural, if maybe short-lived, monopolies. To be repetitious, the story is not just one about "networks"; it's also about the terms of service, privacy policies, and advertising policies of the major platform owners. A focus on the Internet has given a tendency to discuss Facebook (the platform)'s role in the current ferment independent of Facebook (the company), but that's unsupportable (much more here). What accommodations have the owners made with the countries in which they operate?

Mobile Devices: Messaging on a phone in the street is different from looking at a browser while sitting inside, especially in times of political turmoil. It is quite possible that the phone could supplement political activity while the desktop browser could displace it. Mobility makes a difference, and lumping SMS messaging together with blogs just confuses things. On the other hand, the proprietary nature of the phone network means that device manufacturers and network operators can be leaned on to comply with state-driven security demands (ask RIM).

Blogs: Despite Turkey blocking all of blogspot.com, blogging (and especially independent blogging) is architecturally different from social networking platforms. The network of sites is looser, the content more dispersed, the ownership more individual. Blogging plays a different role in political debate and activity to Facebook and other forms of expression.

Multi-channel outlets: Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The New York Times: major media operations that have adapted to the web now operate as multi-channel outlets. Does it make sense to situate The Guardian as traditional media and put the Huffington Post in the new media category? I don't see why, but these outlets that can operate in multiple media surely demand different treatment.

Displaced forms of media: The winner-take-all structure of digital markets means that in any one niche there are relatively few players compared to the number in the diminishing-returns-based physical world. There's no need for separate special-topic reference publications when Wikipedia can be expanded indefinitely, and there are fewer bookshops online than there are offline. The major cultural outlets for many countries are increasingly based on the west coast of the USA as Hollywood is joined by Apple, Amazon, and Netflix. We are losing a diversity of institutions in the move to a digital terrain, and it is worth investigating what impact that loss has.

Circumvention tools: Tools used specifically by activists while carrying out illegal or politically sensitive acts fall into a separate category. Do tools like Tor and the failed Haystack tell us much about social networking and Facebook? I don't think so.

Obviously there are many other divisions possible. My main point is: if there is one shift that forswearing "social media" would produce, it would be to talk less about networks and self-organization and to talk more about institutions (commercial, state, and global), and this seems to me a realistic shift given how the digital world has changed over the last few years.

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