X Isn’t Dead

    April 5, 2007

I am overly tired of the “X is dead” redundancy. I understand the enthusiasm with which those who spout “X is dead” embrace what they believe in, but communication channels rarely die because of the advent of something new, even when that new thing represents a revolutionary, paradigm-changing development. Print didn’t replace face-to-face communication, after all, and television didn’t kill radio.

I’ll bet the first person to leave a comment who’s willing to take the bet $100 (US) that I’ll be able to buy a newspaper in 10 years. (We’ll exchange contact details and I promise to get in touch in a decade.) The newspaper I’m able to buy in 2017 won’t seem a lot like the newspapers we read today. It will be filled more with local content, columns, features and analysis. It will contain longer content. It’ll be smaller, exist in a market of few newspapers, and people will buy fewer of them. But dead? Not a chance.

The notion that young people aren’t reading newspapers and that attrition will spell their doom is equally silly. I read a study not too long ago that suggested kids are reading newspapers in communities where the newspapers are publishing content about (can you feel it coming?) kids. What a shock: Kids will read newspapers if they contain material that’s interesting to them and unavailable elsewhere. Kids are not inherently opposed to print. My daughter, Princess of Digital, still wants me to go with her to Borders so she can buy a (gasp) book. That’s right, she wants to read novels in book form, paper and ink and everything. Ketchum’s recent media usage study (PDF file) confirms that plenty of young people are reading newspapers.

Other things that are “dead,” according to a variety of people:

  • Intranets, because all you need are employee blogs. But I wouldn’t want to use employee blogs to enroll in my benefits or find the company policy on maternity leave.
  • Terrestrial radio, because podcasting and satellite radio will kill it. As long as it’s free and comes with your car, terrestrial radio will stick around. Besides, commercial radio is better in some places (like the UK) than it is in the US, where we tend to make sweeping claims based on the way things are here as though the rest of the world doesn’t exist.
  • Company websites, because of RSS feeds and widgets.

All the “X is dead because of social media” memes stand in stark contrast to the “social media is dead” refrain being sung in some quarters. One blog suggests that the death threat leveled against Kathy Sierra and the ensuing blogstorm is proof of social media’s failure. The argument goes like this: Open the door to widespread conversation and inevitably the worst in people will find its way into the mix.

Of course, there’s nothing remotely new in the notion that some people are jerks and they will be jerks online with even greater vigor than off—especially when they can exercise their jerkiness from behind the mask of anonymity, as did the pond scum who threatened Kathy Sierra. Such behavior has been on display online since the days of UseNet, which goes back to 1979. Why this spells the end of social media, though, is a conclusion that I just cannot understand.

Social media itself is not new. UseNet is 28 years old. FidoNet was started 23 years ago. Nothing was more popular at America Online than its chat rooms and message boards. Consumer opinion sites like Epinions flourish. Consumer-written reviews on retail sites like Amazon.com and iTunes influence purchases.

The only thing that has changed in this era of Social Media is that barriers to entry have been obliterated making it easier for more people to participate. Posting to a Usenet discussion or creating a website used to be complex enough that these resources were accessible only to the very geeky and the very determined. Now, two minutes at blogger.com and anybody can have a website where they can engage in one of the most ancient of human behaviors: being heard.

When you think about it, paintings on cave walls were the earliest form of blogging, an effort by an individual to say, “Here’s what I did today,” a pre-language journal entry. Blogs simply amplify the content, making it available to a larger audience and enabling what we call a “conversation” to ensue about it.

Wikis make it easy for groups to come together around themes of common interest while social networks let people who otherwise would never meet one another gather in social groups. Forming communities is another ancient human endeavor.

The barriers to audio and video production and distribution have also crumbled; individuals are exercising their creativity uploading videos to video sharing sites and producing podcasts as yet more channels for personal expression.

As the technology enables more and more people to be heard—even if only by a few others—influence will increasingly transition to this venue, propelled by concurrent but unrelated shifts in trust. According to multiple studies, people increasingly believe that someone like them is the most credible source for some kinds of information.

The “social media doesn’t work” crowd echoes the sentiments of Andrew Keen, whose book “The Cult of the Amateur” rejects the ideas of community and conversation. In an interview, Keen said:

…the blogosphere has no formal editorial checks or balances and is thus structurally corrupt and corrupting. After reading my book, I doubt that any chief marketing officer of a large corporation will have the confidence to let go of their brand and allow any anonymous Internet user to corrupt it.

Keen clearly knows little about marketing or brands, since no company has ever owned its brand. They own their marks, but “brand” is defined as the way a consumer feels or what he or she thinks when he or she sees your mark or your product. Those perceptions are based upon personal experience. Think the pet food companies own the brands of their tainted product? Think again.

But aside from Keen’s ignorance of marketing’s glossary, his point is an exercise in denial. No CMO can prevent anonymous (not to mention clearly identified) Internet users from discussing their brands. In an era where more and more people are rejecting interruptive, push marketing (think DVR’s and the ability to fast-forward through commercials and commercial-free satellite radio as just two examples), CMOs who want their messages to get through had better consider participation and engagement.

CMOs don’t have to like this; it makes their efforts messy and complicated. But denying it does no good, either. To limit an organization’s communications to interruptive, one-way, top-down channels when influence is being wielded in social networks is, well, pointless.

Which is not to say that CMOs should abandon traditional marketing. People do still watch 30-second spots (I’m a big fan of the Geico ad campaign) and read newspapers (still the most trusted source of information about things that are important to people. What CMOs (and other communicators) need to understand is that social media—which is here to stay in one form or another—has been added to the mix and cannot be ignored, as much as Keen and the other pitchfork-wielding reactionaries wish it could. They also need to look at new forms of marketing that have nothing to do wish social media but focus more on brand experience.

So. Those who think newspapers are dead are wrong. Those who think social media is dead are equally wrong. And when I hear people flogging the “x is dead” theme, it’s the insistence that it’s an either-or world that ultimately cheeses me off. It has never been an “either-or” world. It’s an “and” world. Organizations that recognize this will perform better than those that do not.

Nothing changes everything.