Advertising is Killing the "Social" in Social Media

Advertising is killing the "social" in social media, and we are all culpable.

Advertisers want mass audiences. They reward only those creators who can attract the kinds of mass audiences they want. “Mass” audiences can’t be “social” audiences.

Consumers aren't willing to pay creators for their content, so advertisers get to call the tune. The tune is theirs, but we hear it played so often that we soon sing and dance along as if it is ours. Our lunch is not free. It comes at the price of our cultural agency.

Creators, seduced by the chance of mass stardom, are happy to play the tune and lead the dance. They aren't willing to risk or serve a small audience for the small chance of a small reward. Creators don’t sell-out anymore. From the very outset, they are creating for impressions rather than people.

Once upon a time, television was a tool filled with promise. It was meant to foster a more responsive democracy, increase diversity in the public sphere, and create endless educational opportunities. Then, advertisers sunk in their claws, and TV was turned into a boob tube, catering to our most banal interests, glossing them to a hi-def shine. As click bait comes to dominate the “social” channels, we are once more boobifying our media.

There is, however, some hope for social media because the tools are decentralized in a way that TV never was. People can use them to be social, if they want to and if they can find like minded people in the blizzard of click bait.

The great danger of “social” media -- and I do mean “danger” -- is that these tools are fast becoming the means through which we are fully internalizing the attitude and culture of the mass market advertiser. Many people now see their friends, family and followers only as means to impressions, likes, and shares, rather than as agents and potential collaborators. That is a stake in the heart of community. Community takes blood, but it’s not as immortal as we sometimes think.

Negotiating this dilemma is, in principle, easier for consumers of culture than creators of culture. As a consumer, we should, of course, enjoy our more banal pleasures. We should also find the time to enjoy, share, and, yes, pay for culture that lacks the mass appeal required to draw advertising dollars. The difficulty is that our most banal pleasures are so readily available, so easily consumed, we too easily forget that “free” content is made for advertisers and not for us.

Insofar as we are creators, the situation is probably more difficult to negotiate. Ideally, we’d find a source of income that would allow us to live and create without any worry about survival. Creators, for this reason, should be on the vanguard of the fight to create a basic income scheme.

Until such a scheme is created, the only obvious solution for those of us without a trust fund is to spend some part of our day competing for the dollars of advertisers or working at a job that doesn't make it impossible for us to create, and the rest of our time working on something that is unique and special enough that people will want to pay for it or to support us directly.

The danger here is that any success we have in attracting advertising dollars will likely pull us away from our efforts to create our less banal work. More problematically, it might even be impossible for one brain to divide its efforts between the task of creating for impressions and the task of creating for people, without the creative approaches for each affecting the other.

I suppose there’s only one way to find out. I hope you will help me out in this experiment.