making social media tick…

I have just returned from watching ‘the social network’, the movie that fictionalises the formation of Facebook, and the drama behind the contested ownership of the idea. It provided an appropriate time to think back to what makes social media work.

In the movie, the character of Mark Zuckerberg (the ‘inventor’ of Facebook) is asked what is the main purpose driving the initial development of the site. He talks about the ability to replicate the ‘social experience of college online’. What makes people social? What behaviours, practices and skills do we use when were interacting with others? Think about this in a social context. Meeting other people in a class, or at a party and then try and translate that an online environment.

Are we being social for example, at a party, if we sit in the corner, listen to our iPod and ignore everyone there? Whilst this may sound like the plot of a really bad teen movie it does helps us understand social interaction a little. Social media relies on people not just consuming the media (sitting at the party and just watching people have fun) but making the media as well (interacting with people at the party, dancing, talking, sharing). These processes are called in the literature cultural or content production and consumption. In order to consume content on the web, someone has to produce it. One of the most liberating aspects of social media is ease with which people produce and consume content, with little barriers to access. YouTube takes a cheap, often inbuilt camera in your phone or computer and you can make a video, Facebook asks you to share the most basic of details about and you can begin to find friends and share content and ideas.

This ability to produce and consume with relative ease has led to the rise of two interesting new concepts

Firstly is the rise of the prosumer. A prosumer is the combination of both producer and consumer (for a more detailed exploration have a read through, it covers a lot of the theoretical traditions that inform the definition of prosumer)

The idea of a prosumer is interesting in terms of our position as professional practitioners. In the past participation in arts and cultural production was limited by the persons income (professional cameras for example were expensive), a persons skills (often equipment, techniques and processes were complex) and education (many arts and cultural fields relied on long periods of education and training before someone was capable of participating in cultural production). Particularly with the rise of social media and user generated content, these barriers whilst still existing, have been lowered in many areas of production. People learn how to make films through consuming and then producing YouTube videos. More people are exposed to the art of photography by using cheap cameras and posting their pics to Flickr or their Facebook, hopefully getting better with practice and greater exposure to other peoples work. This expansion of involvement of people in cultural production and consumption is the second interesting concept.

This video is an interview with Don Taspcott, author of Wikinomics, who talks about the notion of the prosumer, what it means to be a member of the net generation and how the internet has been invaluable in building communities, encouraging the formation of networks and power of the skills we have acquired as users of social networks

The speed with which cultural production can occur, be spread and shared and then remixed and reused is another important feature of this debate. How quickly can you think of an idea about your BAPP course, share it on your blog, tag it so people can find it and have comments? Free software, online sites that do the processing and ‘back room’ stuff for you (such as YouTube converting your videos into flash format and streaming them, which might require hours of time if you wanted to do that yourself) all make the sharing of content easy. There is however an argument that perhaps quantity does not equal quality and instead of seeing 10 photos of quality displayed in a gallery, we are wading through thousands of pics every day on Flickr in order to find the stuff we really like. This opens a new debate about how we categorise and label information and content (which we might leave for another day)

So, have a think about your roles in terms of making content and consuming content? Are they separate? Do you make content different to what you consume, or for different audiences? What are your motivations for making and producing content?

Here is the trailer for ‘the social network’ (in cinemas now!)

You may also be interested in these statistics about how pervasive and kind of important this whole phenomenon and debate actually is…

Social Media Revolution from Socialnomics on Vimeo.

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