At first thought, I have a hard time disliking Justin Bieber as much as I think I should do. Certainly, his cocksure attitude and posey self-awareness are at best irritating – but then, if we boycotted musicians for that, we wouldn’t have many musicians. Or bloggers.
Anyway, he did genuinely start up on his own, did genuinely get noticed on his indivdual merit (and obvious commercial appeal), and is, essentially, a boy done good – even if his songs are crap. So that itself is hard to hold against him. However, what is very easy to hold against him – or rather, his caretakers, producers, and marketing machine – is the cynical positioning and messaging designed specifically to corral the emotions of his followers, who now number over 20 million on Twitter alone (as a side note, it is interesting to compare the relative efficacy of Twitter and Youtube in the terms of followers vs. subscribers vs. views, and how that information seeding works).
Fans of the JB are noted for the frenzied – some might say feverish – dedication to their idol. They will point out Beiber’s personal relationship with his fans, in the sense that he dedicates, or is perhaps instructed to dedicate, unusually high amounts of time to individual responses and discussion. This is where things differ from previous crazes such as the Beatlemania (or even Lisztomania!) phenomenon, where the band was still very much a separate entity.
Part of this, you may say, is the inevitable product of growing up in an era of social media, which is inherently interpersonal due to everyone having individual handles/accounts, rather than manifesting as a foaming sea of people. And indeed, you only need to look at Lady Gaga and other recent megastars to see that an avenue of social media is now not only desired but expected. It’s not solely a one-way relationship, of course, with many celebrities and other people who are, or who have risen to, prominence on these channels frequently evangelizing about the ‘connection’. Which I, may I just say, completely believe.
However, the thing about Bieber is, well, he’s awfully manipulative. The nature of his particular account and fanbase means that he benefits immediately and disproportionately from romancing his followers:
It’s ultimately difficult to dissect the appropriate reaction to this – girls and women are of course able to arbiter their own emotions and are not simply helpless – but to my mind it seems to demonstrate that manipulating his followers is of such immediate commercial advantage to BeiberCo that it simply must factor in to marketing plans. In other words, I am reasonable sure that those ticket-selling tweets are very much deliberate, and very much with that end in mind. His latest album is rather unambiguously titled ‘Boyfriend’, for heaven’s sake.
Now, the question as to the rightness of this is long and complicated and filled with historical precedent. Rock bands of the 70s, anyone? Where girls were separated from their boyfriends after the show so that the band could ‘meet’ them? More recently, the mega boybands of the 90′s were forbidden to have girlfriends, so as to create the illusion of availability to the fanbase’s imagination. As you might imagine, I’m generally against such exploitative chicanery, but there are reasonable arguments to made along the lines of perfomance and showmanship for at least some elements of this.
However, irrespective of the above, it’s something users of Twitter have to put up with almost every day in the trending topics sidebar. There are two particular issues – firstly, that the practice is expanding to include other guff such as 1 Direction (currently trending as I type: ‘Directioners Love 1D’) and their ilk. Secondly, that Bieber and his fans are both growing up, and so are the trends.
What sparked this post was someone complaining that “The current Bieber “wet” trend is a bit R-rated for comfort” – referring to a trending topic of ‘Justin Bieber makes us wet’. Some of the star’s more fantastically reckless tweets like the above, sent ten minutes before Bieber’s birthday, have started to lend the mania a distinctly sexual tone.
It must put Twitter in a tremendously difficult position.
On the one hand, Bieber and his fans should surely be able to say what they like without fear of censorship – Twitter is noted for being a liberal-leaning platform in any case, but it has always had an identity as an enabler of free speech, especially in the Arab Spring. Furthermore, stamping on the explicated lust of predominantly female participants smacks unpleasantly of denying female sexuality. To cut off this kind of content would come across as prudish at best, and a betrayal of core values at worst. At the same time, though, should people have to put up with such domination of the sidebar by the sexual effervescence of a crowd of whipped-up teenagers?
Twitter have tried to guard against such things by the evolution of what must be an increasingly complicated algorithm to nip spam-trends in the bud – but it’s clear that it hasn’t really worked as intended, and actually caused a minor PR crisis when it inadvertantly obstructed the #Occupy movement (isn’t it remarkable that I automatically included the hashtag there, by the way? Didn’t even stop to think about it).
Of course, they could always just leave it to the Darwinist tendancies of populism, in that if people want something to trend enough (which is indeed the explicit intent of many of these trends), then their collective ingenuity will always find ways around the bulwark. And indeed, Twitter will be enjoying the business benefits of this kind of activity: more users, more advertising options, more exposure, more integration appeal for publishers, and so on. But it’s probably not great in the long term, as they need to avoid the Craigslist scenario. It’s a very good job that Twitter is self-curating and that users aren’t exposed to this stuff too much, but equally they can’t just cross their fingers and hope the practice dies.
Every social network that makes it struggles with spam. Facebook is perhaps the only one that really managed to control the problem by requiring phone and email registration and operating a real name policy. Twitter has far fewer defenses. Hell, Pinterest must be quaking in its boots. But Twitter might be facing the toughest problem of all: controlling a massively vocal segment of the userbase without alienating them or compromising communication values.
It’s spam, Jim, but not as we know it.
A few things have happened lately in social, but two in particular are notable. I’m talking of course about #NewTwitter and Facebook Timelines. In both cases, these introductions caused a flurry of QTWTAIN journalism asking one of two versions of the posit, ‘Is X trying to be Y?’
You can sort of understand it, if you don’t bother thinking too hard. #NewTwitter’s edging towards a more socially interactive portal, exemplified by the addition of the #Discover tab and better integration of conversation histories, arguably treads ever-so-slightly on Facebook’s toes in the field of sharing and content discovery. Facebook’s Timeline, and particularly the (still new-ish) ticker, on the other hand, smack more than a little of Twitter’s micro-blogging model.
But that’s about as far as it goes. It really doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to start differentiating the products and their respective functionality. Even Facebook’s ticker, perhaps the most obviously ‘borrowed’ feature, is clearly separate from Twitter both in terms of what it displays and how it displays it. In addition, the reason for the ticker is fundamentally different.
Nonetheless, people asked these questions. And it did get me thinking a little bit. This is what I came up with – on Twitter, natch.
- Twitter wants to be a contextual broadcast service. Facebook wants to be an identity platform.
- The overlap comes from the manner in which information moves through the social graph.
- Cultivating and facilitating the movement of this information often has an optimal means by which to do so – ticker, push notifications, etc.
- This creates ‘perpendicular competition’, wherein two entities use the same functionality to the same ends, but with different underlying objectives. In other words, they are starting from two, nonaligned points, yet converging on the same middle territory.
So in a way, this kind of competition isn’t necessarily competition. Just because a tabloid and broadsheet both use the same format of a newspaper, it doesn’t make them direct competitors. If it did, then it wouldn’t make sense for the same company to own The Sun and The Times, right?
But then, flip that point on its head. Perhaps, in social, it doesn’t make sense. Social audiences on the big networks are largely – and increasingly – homogenous. This is because social networks increasingly resemble a utility rather than a destination, in that the audience is so vast and varied that the product (moreso in Facebook’s case) must do its best to maintain universal appeal as opposed to specialist. It’s also interesting because many people, anecdotally at least, will stick with Facebook even if it’s doing stuff it doesn’t like, because the service is considered vital – just like utilities. Granted, people would still surrender their Facebook access before their gas. Well, most people.
So anyway: you have a big, generic audience. You have features that are very similar to another service: they use the same functionality to distribute broadly the same sort of content, in broadly the same sort of way. But your actual goals are different. Does this make you competitors, or not?
To answer this, I think you’d have to have a crystal ball. Because right now, the answer is definitely no. As said before, the differences in what Facebook and Twitter actually want to be are clear. However, in five years time, when social platforms spill into other services, sectors and purposes, then what? For example, what social technology is going to accompany television when that behemoth finally wakes? At the minute, Twitter is way ahead – because it’s a broadcast service, because it has the tools to accompany it (hashtags for shows, retweets etc), and because there is a huge, engaged audience. 300 Tweets vs 74 Facebook Statuses a second isn’t really comparable. Just a few days ago, Japanese masterpiece Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta absolutely slaughtered the official record, clocking in at an astounding 8,868 Tweets per second.
But then, if Facebook is adding functionality that mirrors elements of Twitter’s functionality, and those elements are the right elements, and social technology is implemented with a fundamentally Facebook view of the world and the market – that is to say, instead of just watching alongside others online, you log in to your television with your Facebook ID – then Facebook’s non-competitive product suddenly sweeps the rug from its new rival.
In other words, it really depends what people – and companies – want from social identities in the future. With their maturing grasp of how to monetize a social identity as a marketing model, I can’t help feeling that Facebook (and Google, of course) have the right approach to this in the long term, much as I love Twitter and hope it sticks around for years to come. Because if I’m a TV guy, and I have the option of integrating something that simply spices up my broadcasts, versus something that accomplishes that and gives me a plethora of incredibly valuable social data, then it seems like a no-brainer.
With all that said, anyone been watching Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror?
So I’ve been thinking about the future of news. I mean, what are things going to look like in the next 5-10 years? Everyone knows that print has a lot of questions to answer, not least whether it’s going to survive the next decade. That’s a whole discussion in of itself, and is more about format and delivery. I’m interested in the content – and I think there are some observable trends.
- Market segmentation of viewers. This is an idea lifted, in part, from a recent New York Times piece by David Frum, wherein he discusses conservative-leaning media in general and Fox news in particular.
Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment [...] The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel).
It’s true that the American media scene is particularly polarised, and the mere act of reporting has long been near-impossible to achieve neutrally – just because even stating the plain facts is frequently intepreted as liberal or conservative bias according to whichever ideology the viewer subscribes. Nonetheless, it’s a shrewd observation that (some) media outlets have been getting to work monetizing their audience by accentuating their reporting in a certain light. Although, as Frum wryly notes:
As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly [...] As journalism, not so much.
Little point delving into that one too far, I think. People can draw their own conclusions. But it has long been the case that populism has propped up the more consciously intellectual elements of the press: The Times and the Guardian are supported by NI’s red-tops and GMG’s Trader Group and emap publications respectively, even as their print circulation gradually declines. Even in instances where editorial content takes cue from opinion rather than news – which would seem to better fit the business model Frum notes – highbrow print has suffered. At Le Monde, arguably France’s leading paper and an important publication worldwide, sales have been down year on year since 2002 (with a small blip in ’07).
In terms of what this actually means – well, highbrow viewers certainly aren’t going away. Instead, they appear to be specializing. Readership of The Economist has risen sharply to 4.5m globally, in part due to the multiple financial crises, but also because easy online access means more people are discovering it. Which brings me to my second point.
- Superstar journalists are going to become even more important. Consider Caitlin Moran, Fraser Nelson, Penny Red, Ben Goldacre, Paul Waugh, Faisal Islam, Neal Mann, Paul Lewis, David Allen Green, and so on. All on Twitter, all with tens, even hundreds of thousands of followers. News outlets themselves, such as @BBCBreaking, number into the millions. Print articles by Twitter titans such as these, as well as other, non-resident objets d’affection such as Charlie Brooker and David Mitchell, bring in a lot of views. A lot of views. Moreover, these articles, in being shared, gather more followers to the author, leading to more shares, and so on. These followers’ allegiances will also often be more to the individual than their employer, granting a mandate of sorts for more license of expression. And make no mistakes, as individual writers continue to bring in the views, they’ll either get more and more column space, or break free entirely. In other words, I think we will start to see more Huffington Post models, wherein a central editorial team handle the direction and draft in freelancers. The brand of the news outlet in question will pivot around how well that direction can be steered and channeled.
- Social media will become the leading source of traffic for digital. Given the above, this seems somewhat inevitable. It won’t be for every item, obviously, but where the author strikes a chord, you can expect it to reverberate far and wide. Take this article from The Telegraph‘s Peter Oborne, back in August. His articles normally get… well, looking at his latest three, they have 614 shares combined across four social networks. Now look at the one I linked. 57,000 shares on Facebook alone. When you’re playing with these sorts of numbers, you can bet that you’ll get more followers, more clicks, more eyes. In short, you’ll grow your audience, and that growth will have come from social. This is hardly fluffy speculation: to return to the Guardian, their Facebook application picked up 4m users and grew their pageviews by 1m in under three months.
The irony of this stuff, of course, is that dealing with digital content models – especially when factoring in audience metrics, inevitably begins to lend itself once again to monetization. Therefore, populism. Is it a good thing that an article about David Cameron being a lizard received more views than an article warning of a major food crisis in an African state? The Daily Mail Online held a Gorkana breakfast briefing recently, attended by a friend of mine. When he returned, he flopped down on the couch. It was interesting, he said, but he struggled to see how it was practically useful when considering content. I asked why, and he explained that the people from the Mail had only one goal: to become the largest news website in the world. They were not particularly interested in content beyond whether or not it would deliver traffic. In other words, a purely commercial enterprise – which brings us right back to where this article started.
So what lies ahead? I believe that the struggle is going to be finding a way to balance content models around individual star writers in a manner that brings in views, maintains the brand of the publication, and – perhaps increasingly difficult – doesn’t forget about the goddamn news.
Who’s got two thumbs, insufferable smugness and access to Google+? This guy.
Playing around, it feels like a lot of fun. It’s a clean, smooth design. Needs some work done, but that’s what testing is for. Google do tend to take a long time about this stuff, mind: Gmail was in beta for five years.
One thing, however, strikes me right away: Now is finally the time for Google to buy Twitter.
The title of this post would probably fetch me some very dubious looks from most people. And it deserves it. Measuring social media is hard, bro. Measuring social is particularly hard when you’ve not got some sort of KPI (that’s Key Performance Indicator to the uninitiated) to achieve. There is, after all, a lot of ignorance about social.
I mean this in the nicest possible way. It’s the same way I’m ignorant about fax machines: it’s simply not something I have ever had inclination nor reason to try to understand (apologies if I am making anyone feel old). Social media is, at best, on the periphery of many people’s awareness. It’s something that happens to other people, which of course can make it a complete nightmare when all of a sudden you get a brief from a client who knows almost nothing about it.