Social media, ordinary media, “monetization” and business models

Are social media really ‘media’ in the way ordinary media – like newspapers – are? There’s loads of ways to get confused about this, and like any debate between people, not all of the arguments are completely rational. So, for example, “ordinary media” are sometimes described by “new media” enthusiasts (no names, no packdrill) as “old media”. Those of us who are approaching their 50th birthday tend to feel that this use of the word “old” has an unnecessarily pejorative quality, an “out of my way old timer” feel.

Then there’s the use of the word “media” to describe almost anything happening on the internet – from Tesco’s online shop to the New York Times online. Then comes the word monetization which is almost universally recognised as being terrible – on so many levels (the grubbiest kind of commercialisation, the wanton manhandling of a perfectly good noun into a hopelessly weak transitive verb). Who  is being paid (money) for what, and by whom? Rather than trying to describe the perfectly straightforward matter (in capitalist societies, natch) of people being paid for their work, monetization feels more like a shrug, a vague hope, a kind of awkwardly expressed feeling that – y’know, it might be nice if, at some stage, you might get paid for some of what you’ve done.

One of the ways people have tried to solve the monetization problem is through the idea (metaphor?) of business models. This phrase has a nicely mechanistic (almost Meccano) feel about it. If you want to be paid, you need a bunch of bits and pieces so you can bolt a payment lever onto a communication channel attached to a few content creation devices – with some nice financial gearing up at the front.

Cher Lloyd
Cher Lloyd, in her Twitter profile photo, demonstrates some of the conceptual problems of social media

A recent bit of research from Universal McCann looked at these issues from the point of view (not surprisingly) of their potential clients – brands. (You can download the whole thing if you want. But the point of a blogpost is that you don’t have to – so here’s my summary). What they found was that brands tend to think that social media are like ordinary media. So brands, like Snickers for example, approach the whole business a bit like they would an ordinary media advertising campaign.

They approach some celebs (Rio Ferdiand, Katie Price and Cher Lloyd – I include the surnames for other old people) and get them to share pictures of themselves conspicuously eating snickers on Twitter. Of course this backfired spectacularly, as an obvious piece of “monetization” inappropriate to a ‘social medium’. Which would tend to suggest, that social media are different from ordinary media, and in particular, with regard to monetization. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not the interpretation Mcann give to such findings. Instead they argue that brands, at least, need to make their work in social media more like ordinary media. They quote Simon Mansell, chief executive of social agency TBG Digital: “Most brands are not used to being journalists or publishers.”

To an extent this interpretation could apply to all of us. Partners in this project – the Tate, The British Library, Mixcloud, the University of Westminster, etc. – all are “brands”. And even the individuals – even me – we are all “personal brands”.

What I like about all this, of course, is it suggests there is a future for the kind of “ordinary media” which old people like me, and some of the people I teach, really quite like, and feel we understand. So, as I declared at the start, no contribution to a debate is purely objective and rational. There’s an element of “I told you I was right” about all of us. But the real value of a research network is that I’m forced to say what I really think and then watch as people demonstrate that I’m irrational and just plain wrong.


Photo by Flickr user 401K. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.

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