The biology of 'social'

On a basic level, what actually happens when humans reproduce? In the most family friendly way, a woman’s ovum is fertilized by a man’s sperm, which after a gestation period is followed by the birth of a child. However, if the ‘biology’ of sexual reproduction is explored a bit further, it becomes clear that ALOT goes on behind the wifey getting her lil' baby bump.

Not quite the bouncing, bundle of joy in human form, smartphones, tweets, and viral videos are being born at a pace faster than we can keep up with. Despite the absence of dirty diapers, midnight feeding and constant crying, these digital newborns still demand our attendance and attention.

Yes Web 2.0 has birthed social networks, user generated content and media sharing sites, but that’s just part of the story. What’s also unfolding, underneath the surface, is the social web’s biology, affecting the structure, function, growth, development and taxonomy (characteristics and descriptions) of the marketplace. What constituted communication, products, marketing, and value yesteryear doesn’t necessarily hold sway today.

A few examples: 

Consumer culture is changing – During the industrial economy we were buyers (passive participants) in a seller’s market. That familiar model has been flipped on its head in today’s economy. In a world where the opportunity for creation is unheralded, participation is open to anyone. Today’s consumers are also producers, which create an entirely different kind of marketplace. The good news; opportunities are vast. The bad news; the challenges are wide.

Brands are also platforms - Brands that get ‘social’ realize the need to be more than just ideas and images.  They understand that becoming platforms for collaboration create new kinds of opportunities. InnoCentive and its crowdsourced/open innovation model and the recent experimental alliance between Jay-Z and Samsung on the Magna Carta Holy Grail album are just two examples of this. As the twenty-first century marches on brands will need to re-examine who they are, their purpose and what they represent.

'Sustainable competitive advantage' dying - The rate and speed at which today’s market operates demands a redesign of the ‘competitive advantage’ architecture. Previously, competitors took roughly 18 months to copy a product or service. Today that time has been reduced to 6 months. Business model innovation presents the opportunity for a much more fruitful conversation around staying relevant, because competitive advantages, as previously existing, have increasingly limited life spans.

Community as value – Traditionally the value a company offered was based on four commodities: service, price, convenience or quality. What’s becoming key in value creation in a networked economy is the ability to generate community. Just look at how The Huffington Post and Huff Post Live have utilized their community of bloggers and content creators to re-imagine what a news outlet can actually be. Polyvore a community powered social commerce website around fashion, interior design and artistic expression, has over 17 million monthly unique visitors.

When it comes to today’s marketplace, it’s clear that digital has impacted the landscape dramatically. Let’s be clear however, social media is low hanging fruit. The opportunity is greater when acknowledging the significance of social’s biology and navigating the shifting dynamics beneath the surface. 


Birth of a new trajectory.

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"Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions."        

                                                                                   - Oliver Wendell Holmes

In the traditional business paradigm the objective was about growth. 'Empire' equaled expansion and was about size: more and bigger. In today’s market (business 2.0) scale is less about dimensions and more about complexity.

Over the years conventional thinking said cultivate your resources so that you can grow your business/organization/enterprise (expand the client base, increase employee numbers, make more profit...repeat). Yet with the proliferation of the ‘social universe’, a different kind of narrative is emerging.

Newspaper organizations aren’t simply grappling with how to get more subscribers. They’re trying to figure out how to compete with the digitization of information. Music labels have slowly been picked apart by the mp3 file, and are now in a yelling match with Youtube, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud (for starters) for the attention of music fans. And we won’t even get into how Amazon and Netflix have changed the game of commerce entirely…

Digital isn’t 'physical'. You can't touch or hold it.  Yes it can serve as a conduit to/for physical things, but there’s ongoing conversations around the value of 'intangibles' that digital provides. Things such as experience, content, influence, meaning, community, and design are being organized, packaged and sold as value. In a post-industrial economy these ideas are being recontextualized and are creating an entirely new kind of language.

In 2013 (roughly 15+ years into the digital world order) the market is giving birth to a trajectory where the emerging model is a hybrid of the online/offline world. Value isn’t being driven by the traditional measurements of quantity only. New metrics are needed (and are being established) for a landscape where consumers are also producers, where conversations are now products and democratization pertains to data, media, and manufacturing just as much as it does to nation building.

Your intelligent quotient for solving for X (where X = creativity + solving for complexity) will be what allows you to flourish in a world in which the only constant seems to be…perpetual flux.


Missing the point

                                                                                          Image - **ckyeahreactions

A quick question…have you been living on Saturn, Mars or even the moon since…hmm let’s see, ohhhhh…2002, 2003? I'll give you a few seconds to think about it...

"No." Great. We're on the same page then.

So if you have been on earth over the last 10+ years then in some form or fashion you’ve experienced the invasion of ‘social media’. It’s disrupted the newspaper industry, has annexed vast amounts of the media landscape, and has democratized the communication world in ways unlike any in recent history.

Yes you can post a video of your kid chasing the family cat around the house to the tune of three million hits.  Yes Starbucks can amass 33 million likes to their FB page (whoa...). And yes all 28 million of Rihanna’s followers can tweet how she may have ‘killed it’ at her last performance, followed by hundreds if not thousands of retweets to the tweet. 

Not to mention the huge megaphone around 'big data' (just ask Obama's re-election team), the ongoing proliferation of online video content, and the continual assertion indicating how ‘mobile’ is now the next business frontier.

Yet from blogs, to the news to social media punditry, more often than not, conversations around digital are missing the point

With all the Daytona 500 racing to get to what’s next we’ve zoomed right past (and paid little attention to) the 800 pound gorilla sitting in the room with wayfarers on with his name tag 'value' stuck to the middle of his forehead.

The breakneck speed chase for likes, fans, retweets, page views, and mentions have outstripped any real serious conversation around value.   What is value in a digital market and why is it valuable? 

In the age of social media we’ve gone 20 miles wide on ‘media’ and half an inch deep on social…and it’s social that drives all real value… not the other way around. Focusing so much on social media is like having a conversation on Super Bowl Sunday about the commercials, and for a few minutes at best, any discussion about actual football. I mean, yeah, sure you can have a great time enjoying the commercials but what are they really without the game?

The same with today’s landscape of digital disruption: we can have a grand ‘ol time with debating the merits of 'social', influencers, 'community' etc., but what is it all without any meaningful dialogue around value and what the new dimensions of today's social/digital disruption have truly created?


Disruptive Narrative

In 1962 at Rice University in Houston Texas, John F Kennedy shared his ambitions of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Seven years later in 1969, Neil Armstrong would take one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Fifty years ago JFK announced a disruptive narrative to his fellow Americans; an imaginative notion that would disturb existing norms and extended an invitation to something beyond the current reality.

It was beyond creativity. It was beyond innovation. It was imagination with intent and an assertion that could easily be deemed as inconceivable.

Poke your head into various corners of the market and you'll hear the digital pundits wax poetic on the disruption of web 2.0. and the inexorable onslaught of social media ('social' as innovation is the trend du jour). There's no lack of discourse, explanations and assertions about how revolutionary it has become. Ushering in a new era of social networking, single handedly dismantling print media, and claims as the tour-de-force in the culmination of the Arab Spring.

Twitter and Facebook are the David’s circling in the ring with the ever-present Goliaths: purveyors of conventional thinking, champions of 20th century ways.

Yet innovation, disruptive technology, and social media are discussed in limited ways. It seems that the unending march of shiny new objects gets the lion share of time on the loud speaker, while the smaller megaphone goes to how to maximize human value around the landscape of new technology.

A disruptive narrative can address this as they are more comprehensive, far reaching and arguably more meaningful. A man on the moon is just one....

Disruptive narrative – MTV (Music Television). The tool/device was the television but the bigger, more transformative concept was music videos in your living room. Music was now more than just a soundscape. It became a visual paradise. As the platform that birthed the term VJ (video jockey), it can be argued that MTV singlehandedly transformed pop culture.

Disruptive narrative – Hip Hop. As a cultural movment it gave voice to the voiceless. There was an immense amount of value in the tools; speakers, microphones, turntables, spray paint cans and radios. The power though, was in the words, the stories and the creativity of those kids in the boroughs of New York.

Disruptive Narrative – Barack Hussein Obama. - Go back a few years (say February of 2004). We are in a paranoid, post 911 world. Someone says…“You think we could have a black President by the next election?” EVERYONE would look at you like you had four sets of eyes. Do I even have to mention the kind of name he has? Love or hate Barack Obama, the reality is that his achievement is...colossal.

Disruptive narratives allow for the biggest of ideas and the smallest of actions. They are neither right or wrong nor good or bad. They’re arguments and counter arguments that change the dialogue and re-calibrate the conversation. They create a different kind of orientation and create opportunities for a fresh perspective.

Disruptive Narratives are not just about growth and efficiency (the emphasis of the industrial economy). They fashion new trajectories, recontextualize ideas, and contour themselves around human potential.



                                                                                photo courtesy of Benjamin Heine

In science a hybrid is created by mixing the characteristics of two different species in order to create one that is better or stronger. In web development a mashup is a web application hybrid that uses and combines data, presentation or functionality from potentially two or more sources to create new services (think Yelp with an embedded Google map). In the automobile industry, a hybrid vehicle uses/combines two or more distinct power sources (an electric motor with a gasoline engine) to propel a vehicle. 

Hybridity is a different perspective. It's undiscovered potential. It's creative opportunity. It's a noteworthy conversation right now because of the juggernaut called digital media, which has birthed  the acrobatic discourse between the online and offline world.

Each has their own set of rules, yet those rules often bleed into each other blurring their boundaries, making it difficult to determine where one stops and the other begins. In a hyper connected world/networked economy, traditional definitions are changing, existing constructs are being challenged and typical conversations are being re-calibrated. The incessantly evolving ideas of the blogosphere, social media, wikis, e-commerce and the cloud (to name just a few) are demanding a recontextualizing of the ideas of value, meaning, and culture.

This came into particularly sharp focus for me when I read a great post by Tom Chatfield on e-books (an acute example of the push and pull between online and offline). In his post an idea he shares:

One of the adages of digital media has long been that relationships matter more than mere purchases: between creators and consumers, but also within those communities of consumers who have an increasingly vocal impact on the creative process.

In this context, it’s always been one of the stranger current features of eBooks that digital and print formats are locked in such mortal combat, given not only that the same people buy both, but that the bulk of this buying is done by self-proclaimed book lovers who would relish the opportunity to connect texts’ physical and virtual incarnations. Whether it’s discounted physical copies for owners of digital books, digital editions bundled with physical purchases, or some other arrangement, pitting old against new is a poor reflection of what readers and writers alike actually want.

Often the digerati hail the death of all things non-digital (which is far from the truth) and then traditionalists fail to fully embrace the realities of web 2.0 (at their own peril). As Tom mentions above, there is value in looking at hybrid models designed with the intention of incorporating both worlds into one experience that actually becomes better for audiences and communities.

Ladies and gents, hybridity isn't just about taking advantage of a market trend or not missing an opportunity for a quick buck, its about understanding that this is where the world is heading (and in many ways is already here) and the emerging of a new language . It's not a blip on the radar screen but a shift in the way we think about, understand and engage the world.