Reflections on Readings Week 7

This week in my University of Memphis’s Social Media Theory & Practice class, we finished the Clay Shirky book Here Comes Everybody. In these closing chapters, Shirky really sums up his thoughts on the social media revolution and where he would like to see it all go. Chapter 10 is appropriately titled “Failure for Free,” in which Shirky describes how the new publish-then-filter system of using the Internet means that new social tools must tolerate enormous amounts of failure. Some tools, blogs, websites, online groups, etc. really take off and flourish and become wildly popular and successful, while others die due to lack of traffic. The heart of what Shirky is getting at here is that for the average user trying to launch or even connect an online group, failure online is free because publishing online is free. There is no risk of monetary loss if I can create an online group and no one joins versus a group meeting in person that requires renting a space to hold meetings, buying refreshments for members, creating handouts, etc. There is a real world cost in doing all that. So cheap failure in this instance equals an increase in exploration of multiple possibilities. In this chapter and the following chapter, Shirky uses the example of software programming and Linux to show how groups interact online. One good point is that the number of people willing to start something is much smaller versus those who are willing to contribute once it starts. He points out that the inventor if Linux asked for input, promised  not all would be implemented and then created an open license for it, so that what came out of their group collaboration could not be taken away and used for commercial gain. 

I think this concept of failure for free applies in some aspects to higher education. Although in recent years, higher ed has been subject to market forces, for the most part, it still remains insulated. In our office of communications and marketing, I once had a graphic designer tell who came from a corporate ad agency that he felt so much more creative because the immense pressure of profitability was gone here —  he was still expected to do his best work, but if that work failed to resonate, there was no monetary consequence. He felt more freedom to explore and grow as a creative artist versus hit a home run every time like in the corporate world. I think Shirky’s quote about institutions was also spot on for higher ed: “institutions prefer steady performance to brilliant but erratic” because the culture is so slow to adapt to change.

In Chapter 11, Shirky covers the three basic elements to have success using these new social tools: promise, tool and bargain. The promise is why anyone joins/contributes to a group, including their desire to participate. The tool is how they connect, And, the bargain is the set of rules for road (both formal and informal). I think it was good that Shirky pointed out that there is not one social tool that fits all. Just because Facebook can do photos and video does not mean it will replace Flickr or YouTube. In my opinion, the more focused a tool can be, the more potential it has for success and user adoption. The two most important things to remember about a deciding on which tool to use is: (1) is your group small or large? and (2) is your group short or long-lived? The new array of social tools is tied intrinsically to the modes of group interaction they need to support. And a word of caution from Shirky — new tools are not always better (i.e. the Buffy the Vampire group fan site). 

Shirky notes that bargains are the most complex action of a functioning group. I encourage anyone who doesn’t understand this concept to visit a fandom discussion board. I love to read and one of my favorite genres is paranormal romance/urban fantasy. I am a big follower of the series by J.R. Ward — Black Dagger Brotherhood about vampires (insert fangirl squeal for The King coming out April 1st). I joined the fandom discussion board on the author’s website. There is a hierarchy at work here with moderators, experts, trolls, lurkers, active users and passive users. This online group I belong to is not profitable. We just have a common love of a book series, like to discuss characters, future books, subplots, etc. The author encourages us by posting spoilers and even having the book characters themselves come out to play and interact with fans on the boards. If I were to write a negative post or start flaming someone else’s post, my post could get deleted, I could get banned and membership revoked from the boards. So in this group governs itself without any oversight — but that governance comes from a passion and love of the topic, which can be hard to replicate in forced interaction around a practical work topic. 

One issue we have been struggling with at our university is communication about the university’s new strategic plan called Flight Plan (but don’t call it a strategic plan). We have revamped web pages, published success stories, etc., but we still get feedback that people don’t understand their role in the plan. We have tossed around the idea of a discussion board moderated by the leaders of the plan’s four key focus areas: improve the undergraduate student experience, transform technology, create distinctive programs and invigorate faculty, and expand financial resources and modernize infrastructure. And under these focus areas are key priorities — pretty clear to our office how your could tie your department or office’s goals into this larger university plan. But I just don’t know if discussion boards will work to force discussion and interaction on a topic that people should be passionate about but aren’t. I think more marketing messaging on why this is important and essential to the university is necessary (i.e. the promise component here has not been established and we are jumping ahead to the tool).

In the book’s epilogue, Shirky notes that “social tools don’t create new motivations so much as amplify existing ones,” and of course “more is different.”  In this closing for the book, articulates what he would like to see happen with these new social tools — with the “ridiculously easy group forming” online, there will be many more groups. This will be beneficial for society because the net value of change will be positive and because the political assumptions, including the freedom to say/do what they like will increase. This bookends nicely will Shirky’s other book I have read – Cognitive Surplus, which puts forth evidence that we as a society need to harness the free surplus of time modern life has afforded us and use it for the greater good. However, on his political assumptions part of the equation, I have to disagree with Shirky. Although I have a journalism background, I also earned a degree in political science, and I am not as sure that a rapid influx of freedom, facilitated by social networks, is in the best interest of many countries, such as the Arab Spring. I do agree that the rapidly coordinated protest by ordinary citizens is the most durable story of social media because it is easier to destroy versus create. But I question the speed at which that change occurs, and the interim period of chaos and bloodshed. I know not every revolution is peaceful, but even after freedom is given, there is no guarantee it will last (look at Iraq and Afghanistan today). Okay, my political soapbox rant is over. Overall, I thought Shirky’s book was a really good read to discuss the broader implications of new social tools versus reading about trends and how they can be used for marketing/branding. Even if I disagree with the political assumptions part. 

For my trade journal article this week, I chose Adweek’s current article from Feb. 16 entitled “Big YouTube Channels Join Forces to Help Drive Ads.” This article detailed the formation of a new trade organization for online vides called GOVA (Global Online Video Association). This will be a nonprofit group formed with the primary goal of bring in advertisers to the online video medium. Some of the big players signing up for GOVA include multichannel networks Maker Studios, Fullscreen, Collective Digital Studio, Big Frame, BroadbandTV, DECA, Discovery’s Revision3, Magnet Media and MiTu Networks. The article went on to explain that in the past, most ad sales for these channels have focused on aggregating video views and pre-rolls to make a profit. Now they want to be able to bring attention to the space, and GOVA will be set up to protect their interests. One interesting point in the article is that originally advertising sold for online video was done by non-ad salespeople (technical people generating the video content or those doing editing). Because of that some unusual precedents were set that need to be addressed, and GOVA could be a place to codify industry standards. Here is the link to the article: http://www.adweek.com/news/technology/big-youtube-channels-join-forces-help-drive-ads-155758

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