The greatest impact

Writing yesterday about an ongoing debate about the efficacy of paywalls, I considered an argument advanced by Mathew Ingram of GigaOm:

… [P]ersonal relationships are what drive an increasing amount of media-related consumption and activity now — not products, but people. This trend has been fueled by social media such as Twitter and Facebook, but it wasn’t created by them. It’s an innate human desire, and (as I’ve argued before) the best pay models take advantage of that desire and build paywalls that are based on readers’ relationships with specific writers.

I responded in part by noting that "[w]hile I'm not convinced that the world is moving to "paywalls that are based on readers’ relationships with specific writers", it clearly is happening already at the margin. Where it ends up is a guess."

Today, I got to re-reading "Three ways to beat the tragedy of the digital commons", a post written by IBM's Ethan McCarty for B-to-B Online. In it, McCarty argues that unfettered access to social media can lead to a tragedy of the commons, in effect an overuse of the shared environment to the detriment of all.

In my first reading, McCarty's argument seemed a misuse of "the commons". Unlike sheep grazing on a common or fish in a sea, social media does not represent a resource that is depleted with use. Revisiting McCarty's work, though, I saw an application that I hadn't envisioned before responding to Ingram's claim that readers follow writers.

McCarty describes the steps that IBM took to manage its social media presence, presented here largely verbatim:

  1. Collaborating around a single social-media strategy
  2. Building an active, engaged membership that respects the values and philosophy of the organization
  3. Creating a curatorial team that determines who has access and when

You might imagine my initial reaction: an established brand responds to social media by implementing a command-and-control plan for engagement. Good luck with that, right?

But McCarty goes on to specifically consider the risks inherent in restricting access:

Because "failure to offer employees full access to social media seriously threatens an organization's competitiveness," it's important that we temper our use of restricting access. At IBM, we published Social Computing Guidelines in early 2006, encouraging IBMers to participate. We intuited (and later learned first hand) that, as my colleague, Susan Emerick puts it in The Most Powerful Brand on Earth, “Brands need to respect the employee's desire to develop their own reputation…the greatest impact occurs when both the brand and the employee understand and integrate each other's strategies.”

While this latter argument sounds more like "finding win-win options" than preventing a tragedy of the commons, the point made by McCarty and Emerick is directly applicable to media entities (and not just established ones). If people really are inclined to follow writers – Andrew Sullivan, Nate Silverberg, Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher provide examples – their employers need to acknowledge and respect that inclination.

The same employers also have a chance to show how individual writers are better served remaining part of a collective – newspapers and magazines, in particular. Ultimately, writers whose work draws an audience will have to be recognized and rewarded in different ways.

The primary challenge, perhaps embodied in Nate Silverberg's departure from the New York Times, may lie in management convincing the organization that win-win scenarios are possible. After a decade of staff cuts in newspapers and magazines, many promising writers may see their own ventures as more stable and attractive.

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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