Category Archives: Culture

Is My #Hashtag# Loud Enough?!?!?!?!

Last night my Twitter  feed blew up with lines like “Malcolm Gladwell thinks Social Media is weak” or ” Surprise, The New Yorker hates Social Media”. These were all reposes to Mr Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article on Social Media and social activism.

I like Gladwell. He’s  an academic without being an Academic, in a way that allows him to take something like the Milgram Study and turn it into a brilliantly written best seller. With that being said he has a tendency to read history with one eye open (or really just write it that way) while rapidly flattening the rest. The New Yorker piece is no exception, and I’m not even sure it’s really about social media at all.

The article focuses on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and the “strong-ties” that effectively caused actions, opposed to the “weak ties” promoted by services like Twitter and Facebook which simply produce an awareness. Gladwell  declares “Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” This is a telling sentence for  the historical framework of the article, as it never cites any movement past 1970. In no way am I trying to undermine the importance of The Civil Rights movement, but in writing an article about activism structured by the two poles of The Civil Rights Movement and the “Twitter Revolution” of Iran and Moldova wouldn’t it be useful to cover some of the steps between? The Anti-War Movement? Seattle 99′?

Gladwell views “activism” in a very finite way and then suggests that it’s because of our digitally networked lives that effective activism is dying out

“Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies.”

Good call Malcolm! This is exactly the what many modern activists are addressing. Some of the largest protests in the last twenty years have been staged by the Alterglobalize Movement. The very nature of this assembly is not to have a central hierarchy but “affinity groups”; egalitarian decision-making structures*.  These groups  formed as reactions to activist structures, that Gladwell outlines ,of the 60’s and 70’s; either align with brave and charismatic personalities (effectively making them targets) or military cell structures that carried out guriella style attacks. Mr Gladwell finds himself in a chicken or the egg scenario. Is he really suggesting tools like Twitter or Facebook cause something like Toronto, or did the founders of these systems simply recognize that people were beginning to think this way already? Wasn’t that the point of The Situationists, Punk, Hip-Hop and just about every other social movement?

Gladwell’s final sentence does the most damage to the articles central thesis
“What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.”

Gladwell’s argument shifts from the digital tools, to whom has access to these tools. It’s a good point, but one that has been recognized for a while and deserves more attention than being clumped in with Gladwell’s “weak ties” of social media. After spending 4,300 words dismissing the “revolution” of social media he admits that certain platforms do provide empowerment and it’s a shame more don’t have access to it.

The article is a great reminder as to what Gladwell is, a thoughtful, diligent, and popular journalist about social theory but no social theorist. Which is a shame, because beneath it all I think Gladwell’s thesis is important and one that needs a wider audience; if we believe this to be a “revolution” then we must recognize the digital revolution for exactly what it is. Supporters of both the French and Russian Revolution assumed their best intentions, not their worst, would emerge from the ashes. They were absolutely stunned when this didn’t happen. So in the hype  of Adweek, as the gospel of social media rings through the streets of Manhattan  we should be asking what it really means for this world that so many people are playing Farmville and consuming/sharing/Twittering gossip.

*A lot this has been traced to Quaker origins and their consensus based decision making

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Time to Don Draper Up

In the previous (re)introduction I made a broad statement that the seemingly cosmic optimism/anxiety of social media is just a part of the micro/macro shifts of history, with a link to Thomas Frank’s book The Conquest of Cool

I wanted to explain a bit further what I meant by that.

The Conquest of Cool focuses on cultural flux of the advertising industry from 1958 till about 1968. Frank offers meticulous historical research, excerpts from period documents and books, and interviews with the key players on the shifting attitudes of advertising as a profession, as well as the idea of advertising as a measurable science. It’s a history lesson but I also think it doubles as management practice for today’s advertisers.

The central thesis of the book is that the counterculture of the 60’s did not change advertising but rather advertising changed how people thought about their life and its relationship to brands

That’s not to suggest it was all a univocal campaign created by ad agencies. Long time advertisers were beginning to employ individuals who may not have been radical Marxists or members of SDS but were at least weekend warriors in the youth culture.

In addition many CEO’s and professional creative’s WANTED to shake things up.

The results entirely reshaped consumer relation and valuations of reality. It can easily be argued that our modern concepts of branding comes from the agency changes of the 60’s

I think we’re in a similar fluidity to them now.

No, social media is not an exact mimic of the 60’s counterculture. Social media offers some interesting ways t engage with brands and consumers, and at the same time the work place is slowly beginning to fill with a generation who grew up with free flow of previously controlled materials (I was in sixth grade when Napster became popular). Of course, for many marketers this has meant they’ve lost control of their  brands “message”.

I think anyone in marketing who believes this has seriously deluded themselves in self-importance. They never had control of the message. People have always sat around and talked about products, how much they sucked or how well something worked.  People have always defaced poster boards.  Brand slogans will always be reappropriated  to meet with certain cultural attitudes outside of what the brand would prefer.

Do we really think the outrage around BP would have been any less if people weren’t able to use tools like Facebook or Twiiter???? That might be a callous example but I think you get the idea.

What has changed is how people operate with this information. The backalleys in which these conversations and alterations take place has opened to a more public forum. The best organization can do is take note of how people are talking about what they’re doing.

My basic breakdown as how to adjust to this:

1.) Discover the Brand’s Social Context
2.) Create and Commit to the Brands Narrative
3.) Create Value for the brands Social Media
4.) Empower Users
5.) Align Social Media with Long Term Goals

I recognize that this is the sort of jargon stock holders and CEO’s hate. But there is no turning back. They need to recognize the media literacy of modern audiences,  who have certain expectations about how brands should operate in this world.

I’m going to close this on a stupid analogy. But I think it works… I also think Mad Men is the best television show since Twin Peaks ( DO NOT EVEN COME AT ME WITH ANY LOST CRAP)

The people who are concerned that their “losing the message” in social media want to me the Don Draper of Season’s 1 & 2. The sort of ultra-cool, impenetrable ad man of advertising’s Golden Age.

But now we’re in Season 4 and much like a high school reunion we’re learning that hyper cool people like Don Draper are just as misguided and vulnerable as the rest of us.

Is social media bringing brands into adulthood?

New Season

I started this blog around the same time that I was compiling two years’ worth of readings, research, and interviews into what would be my graduate thesis.

There’s a basic rule to be a successful grad student. Write…a lot. So I started this as exercise. I got three posts deep before the demands of working on Gethuman.com and my thesis assured me that my weekly writing output would need no assistance from a blog.

Times have changed. All that research got slapped into a 78 page behemoth filled with fun stuff like metaculture, Bourdieu, and indie rock bands (it’s a real page turner).

But the most important change is that I’ve left the academy  and have fully joined the “working world”. Well, at least I’m trying. I’ve been on a two month, non-freelance job hunt that is about as uplifting as using Taxi Driver as white noise to fall asleep to.

It’s an exciting and frustrating time to be seeking work in the media fields.

After undergrad I started working at a PR firm. I’d spent four years studying the economics, culture and psychology around media consumption. I was also from a generation that grew up with platforms like Napster and Facebook and thought about these systems often. When I left college I really thought that these networks  were going to reshape how organizations functioned. But when it came to the firms weekly de-10 no one was interested in having any real conversation about integrated brand communication (at least no one in Rhode Island).

I was convinced I had deluded myself into thinking organizations actually cared about how people used things like Facebook, or World of Warcraft .  It seemed the only logical place to pursue my passions was back in academia.

Of course the great irony was that I no sooner became a student  that the masses caught the social media bug.  That puts me in an interesting place. In 2002* I had written a paper on user-generated marketplaces in (now defunct) There.com, but as far as most interviewers and HR people see it I’ve been “on the side line” for a while.

I don’t regret this. Grad school allowed me to develop some concrete thoughts about an immaterial world.

One of these insights – There is a tremendous amount of collective corporate anxiety around social media, technology, and all of these gadgets that flash, buzz and tweet at us all day. On a few interviews organizations seemed disappointed I could offer no one stop solution. Clearly they were hunting for the “magic bullet” or some authority on how to operate in this field. If your one of those people, well..uhmm.. I don’t think you get it.

Advertising/marketing has never had a “cure-all”.  Even more important, on the societal level I think we’re beyond the point of having authority figures. Anyone and everyone with an internet connection can gather information, edit and publish it with a few clicks-turning themselves into a temporary “experts”. That’s not a judgment call, just a stated fact. The pieces are the same (people) it’s just the technology is different.

The last time I was at an agency this stuff was being called “new media”, with a little too much emphasis on the “new”. I understand why it was used, but that concept was simple. Social media is just as much caught up in the micro/macro flows of history as everything else. Especially since the most intrinsic aspect of it, sociability of people, is so predictably irrational.

Agencies that employee successful social media work will be no different than the success stories of the past. They’ll be the agencies that pay attention to culture. Their internal culture and the culture that surrounds the brands they help represent.  They will be the agencies that help retain relationships between brands and consumers, all the while helping to authenticate the narrative consumers tell themselves.

That might sound like gobbledegook, but I’m hoping to use this space to explain exactly what I mean and get back in the habit of writing… a lot

* In no way am I suggesting that in 2002 this idea was ahead of it’s time. But when I told people about it there was certainly a lot of  “your doing what? Why?” responses

Like Most Things in My Life, it Started with Facebook

I’ve been concerned with my writing for a while now. I always considered myself above average in my ability to articulate abstract thoughts, but I’ve been increasingly concerned I was lacking that step to the “next level”. More alarming was a creeping notion that I had actually lost some of my capacity for the craft. It was a notion that became glaringly obvious yesterday when a close friend of mine simply changed her Facebook status to “Life altering music recommendations, anyone? My pod is beginning to age need some new blood”.

For the past fourteen years I’ve spent the better part of my life thinking about, writing about and playing music. In college these passions lead me to submit music/cultural columns to my schools paper and a few underground zines. At the same time I developed the lucrative business of providing pricey cognitive labor to friends/associates on any unwanted homework assignments. The price was determined by my knowledge of the subject, page requirement, due date, and interest. When she posted her status I knew I had written some  pieces on music I really loved. The problem was that the bulk of that work had been done on a laptop that crashed a year ago. I combed my external hard drive for any relics that may have been salvaged  (Laur, if you reading, this is why your list is restricted to the 2003-2007 spectrum). As I read through the small sample I came to the conclusion that my writing has absolutely dissolved into academic jargon and flashy syntax. A short article I wrote on Arcade Fire’s sophomore album Neon Bible illuminated the conjectural toxic of my writing.

I offered her the following condensed version of the review (this was a Facebook post… which I knew I was going to catch shit for this length, never mind the whole thing)

I know, I know “Funeral” is the one everyone is supposed to like, it was filled with catchy, cathartic, personal anthems. “Neon Bible” is darker. It’s slow, tense, ominous and foreboding. It’s the sound of a one-time theology student struggling with the world’s addiction to religion and consumption. It was an insider’s take on America from the outside (Win grew up in the States but moved to Montreal for college). The album came out at a time when I felt absolutely betrayed by a country that was descending into Neoliberal rhetoric and fanatically paranoid commentary. But that’s not to suggest its all doom and gloom. If you listen closely , all the wrongs illuminated in “Neon Bible” also serve as a reminder of what it is great, what is worth getting out of your bed each morning.

This is not an ego boost. I don’t think this is great writing, but it addresses the culture/politic binary in a language that is accessible, and maybe, just a little enjoyable? I want to get back to that. So I’ve decided to try and make this the space to do so. It is more for me than for any hopes of developing readership (beyond my beautiful and supportive girlfriend or some confused sports fanatics looking for an article by my dad).
I decided my first effort was to write a reaction to the Neon Bible piece. Not about the music (though we are about due), but my social consciousness of then vs. now.
*****
When I think back to those years there is something of a black cloud. Not because I was struggling with any personal demons, on the contrary I was spending my summers on beautifully delicate (and drunken) island, enjoying the latter half of my college career, and in a combination of business and leisure enjoyed the luxury of traveling to four different continents in a sixteen month period. At the same time I was becoming increasingly aware of the world around me, my role in it, and the many horrors humanity hides in its closet(the extensive travel certainly helped). In particular, those years exposed me to foreign appraisals of the United States under the Bush administration. In Australia, a girl on the bus started talking to me. After the regular small-talk you start with a cute stranger she asked me if all American’s were as crazy as the ones she saw in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was a joke, but one that commented on the view of America’s sordid methodology.

The Neon Bible article has a certain vernacular to it. It was clearly written by someone coming to believe the system was seriously dysfunctional.  People become more politically aware as they become more invested in a shared society, essentially as we get older we pay more attention to our surroundings. At the time of writing the Neon Bible review I thought I was making the shift from teenager to adult (I’m still reluctant to use that word to describe myself) in interesting but ruinous times, and my writing showed it. Just about every article at that time had a certain “Rome is burning” feel to it. From my current vantage point I know that’s something of a fallacy. Pick any year over the last half of the century and I bet I could find indications that some end was near. The first oil shocks; inconclusive wars; race riots; polluted air and water; the first and only U.S. presidential resignation. Anyone between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five during any of these moments surely thought “Holy Shit…This is horrible! It was so much easier when I was ten”. But on a grand scale it wasn’t.

This is not to discredit the composition that is Neon Bible. Nor a retract of my album critique. I still believe it perfectly diagnosed many of the anxieties and hopes of the time. Kid A prophetically prepped for the beginning of the decade, Arcade Fire perfectly understood the polarizing politics and exaggerated complaints that would lead us out of the 2000’s. In hindsight, I think celebrities like Oprah had little to do with President Obama’s election , indie bands like Arcade Fire  were voicing the public’s grievances and organizing mobilization long before.

I think I’m content with the above as an intro.

My hope is to make daily writing assignments for myself. Since I’m in the process of writing a thesis; looking for jobs once my contracts end in Feb; trying to have a social life, I’ve posted this to the pubic with the idea that others will help generate conversation and ideas for writing.