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How social media democratised content

How social media democratised content

By Graham Oakes, founder Graham Oaks Ltd

Graham Oakes is a systems engineer and project manager. His book Project Reviews, Assurance and Governance is published by Gower Publishing.

Content was King.  Then media went social.  Now it’s all about the interaction, the social graph, the experience.  The King is dead.

But wait.  Look at those social media.  Twitter?  A fair proportion of tweets contain URLs. And what do those URLs point at?  Content.  A prime use case for Twitter is to draw attention to content.  That’s why it’s such a great marketing tool – Twitter gets people’s attention.

What about the other flagships of social media?  Facebook?  Photos, discussion, apps and suchlike.  Facebook has packaged it all nicely.  It’s added the social graph.  But there’s an awful lot of content there.  Flickr?  More photos.  Delicious?  Content tagging. YouTube?  Content.  The list goes on.

What’s really going on here?

We’ve moved from an age of scarcity to one of abundance.  Two decades ago, content was rare.  If we stumbled across something useful, we grabbed it and kept it.  In big boxes called “filing cabinets”. People called “filing clerks” had fulltime jobs to tend these boxes and their associated card indexes.  We invested a lot of effort in protecting and preserving that rare (but expanding) content.

Then content went digital, and we realised we could index it digitally too.  Search engines evolved, becoming the way to find those rare items of relevant content within the ever-growing corpus.

Now content overwhelms us.  The problem isn’t finding content.  It’s filtering out good content from the stuff that contains plausible keywords, but which is evidently crap to anyone with any interest in the domain.  Your valuable articles, brochures, comments, etc, are lost in a sea of lookalike verbiage.  Search engines can no longer help people find it.

Here’s a biological analogy.  Our bodies evolved to deal with food scarcity.  They learned to store every spare calorie as fat, ready for the coming famine.  Nowadays food is plentiful.  That stored fat has become an obesity problem.  Social media is one tool that’s emerging to deal with information obesity.  A fitness regime for our content.

How so?  It’s brought lots of people into the loop.  We no longer rely on specialists to classify and tag content – we’ve “democratised” the process.  That is, people on your social graph look out for new content, assess its quality, classify it, etc.  With so many people on the case, there is some hope they can keep up with the every-growing weight of content.  Your social network filters out the unfit content; alerts you to the valuable stuff.

Search simply can’t keep up.  It can index a lot of content, at least at the level of keywords.  It can use proxy measures like pagerank to filter a little.  But it can’t understand content.  And without understanding, it can’t truly assess relevance.  This was tolerable when content was rare – the result set from a well-formed search was still manageable.  When content is abundant (and filled with spam designed to defeat the search algorithms), even a small percentage of false hits becomes overwhelming.

Someday semantic search may solve this problem.  But that’s a long way off.  Why wait: your social network can do the filtering now.

And search can’t alert us to new content we don’t even know we’re looking for.  That needs people who understand the content and can point us at good stuff.  And if our social network can’t cover as much of the web as Google?  That doesn’t matter.  It covers more than enough content to overwhelm us.  The problem isn’t finding content; it’s filtering all the content that’s out there.

Social media is changing the way we create, classify, tag and view content.  Adding the social graph has enriched the experience.  But content is still right at the centre of things.

Nonetheless, there is truth in the commentary.  Social media has democratised everything.  Content is no longer King.  Content is now President.


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