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Is Social Media Crippling Content?

There’s a school of thought – not mine – that social media is crippling content. Critics claim that abundance and ease of sharing have lowered quality, “crowding out” good content and making search more difficult. Certainly a new reality is at work, but the path forward starts with an embrace of social media, not a hope that the genie can be put back in the bottle.

The arguments against social media

Part of the argument against social media is rooted in abundance. On the web, barriers to entry are low, and anyone can create content. If anyone can, everyone will (goes the argument), and the quality of much of what is published will be low.

Part of the argument is tied to ease of sharing and “liking”. Last year, Chartbeat found that there was “effectively no correlation between social shares [on Twitter] and people actually reading.” As Richard Nash asked, what’s the value of a “like” when the majority “likes” everything?

Part of the argument stems from an unwillingness to view curation as a valid way to serve an audience. By its nature, curation is derived – a collection of other works. If you didn’t make it yourself, your quality is suspect and the value of your content is thought to be lower.

Democratizing access

These arguments have been heard before, and not just in the last decade. Consider the music industry.

In his book Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, author Greg Milner describes the history of the business as a series of debates: acoustic vs. electric; analog vs. digital; and (most recently) professional vs. amateur. On that last front, Evan Brooks, cofounder of Digidesign, says about his own product:

“ProTools was all about egalitarianism, bringing those (music-making) capabilities to literally anybody… Unfortunately, if you allow anybody to make music, anybody will make music, which is a whole other set of unintended consequences.” (p 298 – 299)

In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson described this phenomenon as “democratizing the tools of production”. In our context, content professionals – whether they are recording engineers, typographers, editors or publishers – lament the trend, pointing out how product quality has inevitably declined.

The flip side of quality, at least in the near term, is access. As Richard Nash has illustrated, the published universe today may or may not be of the same quality, but it is decidedly less white, less male and altogether less tweedy. In democratizing production and distribution, we have also begun to democratize access.

Embracing social media

I understand why we lament the loss of scarcity. Perhaps most music sounds worse today than it did in my long-past youth. Perhaps the average article on the web is barely a whisper of the quality we had come to expect from a traditional publisher.

But it’s demonstrably true that at least some great content is now coming to us from many previously untapped sources. Wikipedia not only rivals the error rates for most encyclopedias; it covers topics that traditional encyclopedias never included, and it updates itself in real time.

We may dismiss the power of sharing, but reading is inherently social. Whether we’re sitting around the kitchen table, talking about the news, contributing a review to Goodreads, sending a link or telling a friend what you are you reading, we are looking to share what interests us.

We could pine for the old days, but the genie is out of the bottle. The answer is a healthy mix of creation, sharing and curation.

In a web era, the one thing that cannot be commoditized is “time” – yours and mine. In that light, curation becomes an informed practice, not a derived one. Can you find the person, publication, company or resource whose content can save me time? Yes, I think I’ll pay for that.

Now is the time to migrate our models away from preserving scarcity and toward capitalizing on abundance. If abundance and sharing have lowered average quality, they have also made access to great content more likely. A new reality is at work, and the path forward starts with an embrace of social media, not a hope that the genie can be put back in the bottle.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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