Saturday, June 27, 2009

Social media is a-flutter

Who would have thought that Michael Jackson’s sudden death would have been the catalyst for me to finally broach the subject of social media and the wine world?

I’ve been brought into the social media conversation by two incidents: a posting on a Web site for writers on which I am a member (link below), and a posting by my compatriot in philosophical thought, Arthur, of wine sooth (link below).

As I commented on Arthur’s blog, as a salesman I learned that the weakest argument to sell a product is to knock the competition, so my intent is not to knock so-called social media or so-called mainstream media; I merely want to make a few points.

I refer to each type of media as ‘so-called’ because I’m not sure what either moniker really means.

On the writer’s forum, someone posted with glee how Twitter became the first media outlet to flutter around the report on Michael Jackson’s death, and how seemingly important that makes social media. Another poster reminded people that the original 'tweet' probably was written after its writer learned of the death through the mainstream media. Still another pointed out that Twitter was the source of other flutterings concerning the deaths of Harrison Ford and Jeff Goldblum, neither of whom had in fact died.

Arthur’s blog entry took a swipe at the mainstream media but from a different perspective. He wondered if CNN knew sooner than it let on about Jackson’s death, preferring instead to keep up the tension with stories about a coma so that the mainstream media could hold the attention of viewers. He ended his blog entry with a reference to something if not nefarious at least stinky.

What exactly is what we call social media, and does it have its own stink?

When a company wants to practice with an idea or get feedback on a product it may hire a PR firm to organize a focus group. The focus group is made up of sample consumers or potential consumers of the idea or product, and they are often paid a small fee for participating.

The group gets together for a face-to-face with either the PR firm reps or the product company reps, or both, who put forth a series of situations and questions and get feedback from the participants.

A focus group is like a survey but in the flesh rather than on paper. The key is that those involved know that they are engaged in a focus group and that they may be helping the company with its image, message, product direction, whatever.

Social media is often used commercially to create a focus group. In itself, that isn’t a problem. But it is a problem with me if the social networking people aren’t aware that they are being used as an unpaid focus group for commercial purposes. I fear that more of this activity may be going on under the guise of social media than meets the screen.

As a wine writer, not a week goes by these days when I either haven’t been directed to read at least one article about the benefit to wineries inherent in the social media revolution or received a few press releases or solicitations from social media consultants selling their wine consumer tracking capabilities online. If I were a cynic, I might be suspicious concerning who starts a social networking conversation about particular wines, and that would make me equally circumspect on a social network site.

Is this where the new information age is taking us?

When television came on the scene some sixty years ago vaudevillians like Milton Berle shared space with newspeople like Edward R. Murrow. Berle’s intent was always to entertain through non-intellectual comedy; Murrow’s was to inform through intelligent investigation. In the latter’s case, he believed that television represented the future information age (sound familiar?).

Today, it’s hard to see how Murrow’s vision holds up, but not so hard to see Berle’s. In fact, myriad television channels do justice to Berle’s non-intellectualism and, aside from a few history-lite channels, information is mainly passed along as snark on late night television. So much for the promise of television and the first information age!

I am afraid that social networking may be just another huckster’s phrase for commercializing our every thought. I’m afraid that, while there may be real benefits lurking inside my computer, they will be dwarfed by the commercial opportunities that lurk in cyber space—do we still use that phrase?

Like everything else in life, from waking in the morning, to crossing the street, to selecting a wine based on someone else’s rating, there’s always pluses and minuses connected to the activity.

The pluses of social media are evident: quick turn around time for gathering information, bringing the world closer, ease of access to potential customers, and more. It’s also a step up from the single-issue forum wine sites that instead of social networking often seem like sociopath networking.

The minuses of social media may not be so evident.

Mainly, I want to know for what purpose I am asked to socialize, and I also want to find out who is behind the curtain. The biggest minus I can imagine is that instead of merely social networking, those of us who engage in social media may be actively but unknowingly helping to develop a commercial form of computer-generated social engineering.

My feeling about the matter can change, but for that to happen social media will have to prove itself to be something much more than a commercial tool. The word ‘friend’ has a much more powerful meaning to me than merely someone with whom to network. Besides, even the seeming non-commercial social networking sites may be used by commercial interests to gather information.

winesooth
freelancewriters


If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2009. All rights reserved.

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