It's sometimes amazing (and disappointing) what you find when you scratch beneath the surface of headlines. Take this one from Mashable: "Social Media Not a Big Factor in Holiday Purchases." It’s a big, eye-catching, alarm-raising headline, but as I dug into the story beneath the headline, I found my impression changed considerably.
The article reports on a ForeSee study that, according to Mashable, demonstrates that "social media may be an underwhelming driver" of retail sales. Based on the Mashable article, I downloaded the report from the ForeSee site, expecting a thorough exploration of social media's role in holiday shopping purchases. I was surprised to find that the portion pertaining to social media was a mere two sentences in the 22-page report. (In fact, ForeSee notes that its report could not contain all of the findings of the study, so additional information relating to topics like social and mobile will be made available in future weeks by request.)
Is it possible that in 2011 social media could help bring peace on earth, goodwill toward men (and women)? I’m enough of an optimist to hope so but enough of a realist to appreciate how naive that sounds. Still, I believe there are encouraging signs that social media can have a positive impact on the world — but only if it first has a positive impact on each of us.
If I predict that social media will bring peace to the world and am subsequently proven wrong, at least I’d be in good company. History is full of examples of technical advances that carried the promise of beneficial change but delivered something less. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, a more stable version of nitroglycerin, to make mining safer; he eventually used his wealth to establish the Nobel Prizes after reading an erroneously printed obituary that called him “the merchant of death” for “finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”
One common complaint I hear from marketers is that social media is not (yet) a mass medium. For example, the circulation for Cosmopolitan is 3 million, while the magazine counts just 700,000 fans in Facebook. And while it seems (almost) everyone is creating, using or consuming social media today, it is a highly fractured channel. Thirty years ago, almost every person watching television was tuned into one of three networks; today, 550 million people use Facebook, and each and every one of them is their own network.
However, the fact that social media is fractured and personalized does not mean that it isn't a mass medium; it just means it is a challenging mass medium. Here is the evidence for social as a mass medium:
Some blog posts generate little reaction; some generate a lot; and sometimes it is a single idea contained within a blog post that spurs the greatest response. I recently authored a diatribe entitled "Eight Things I'm Sick Of In Social Media." The comments associated with the post are fascinating and informative, but one point created the strongest and most supportive reaction: When I said I was sick of Auto DMs on Twitter. (For those who don't know, Auto DMs are generic, pre-programmed responses that are automatically sent to each new follower on Twitter.)