Social Media and Other Early Platforms for Individuation

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Since the new millennium began, billions of people have discovered a more practical way to obtain a customized supply of news, entertainment, and other information than manually using search engines or revisiting numerous favorite or ‘bookmarked’ websites to see if anything there is new. They discovered a 21st Century version of something known since Neolithic times: that hunting and gathering is much more efficient when done by groups of peoples. Find yourself people who have similar—not necessarily identical, but similar enough—needs, interests, and tastes as you do, then hunt and gather those things as a group. You all will cover more ground, make far more discoveries, and obtain a great supply of the things you need or want than if you alone hunted and gathered. That ancient description also describes 21st Century Social Media. It is a description upon which human society and civilization was built.

The rise of Social Media has provided more than 1.5 billion people with a more practical and automatic way to obtain a customized supply of news, entertainment, and other information than constantly using search engines or revisiting numerous websites. Social Media allows them to network with people who have similar — not necessarily identical, but similar enough—needs, interests, and tastes as they do; people who, if this were Neolithic times, might be their hunting and gathering network. (Of course, each Social Media member’s group will have a unique set of members, unlike a unitary tribe of Neolithic hunters/gatherers.) When a member of the group makes a discovery, he shares it with all the others in his group. Social Media involves not just collaborative filtering of information, but collaborative discovery and acquisition of information. For the billions of people who use Social Media, these methods have greatly reduced the labor of themselves searching for much of the contents that interest them. These methods provide them with a much more richly customized mix of contents than any common package (such as a Mass Media edition or program or program schedule) can provide to them. As a result, Social Media have rapidly superseded Mass Media in post-industrial countries as the predominant ways in which people under age 35 obtain news, much other information, and quite a bit of entertainment, a trend that is spreading as people’s access and choices of contents likewise changes from relative scarcity to surplus.

Among the many Social Media that have arisen, Facebook is major example of Individuated Media’s popularity and displacement of Mass Media. Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly users, including more than 980 million use the service daily. Surveys of Facebook users under the age 35 indicate that it has become one of their leading initial sources of news about the world around them. (Among its users of all ages In Arab-speaking countries, Facebook has become a paramount source of news).

Although almost all practitioners of Mass Media and academicians who teach those media now perceive the rise of Social Media, most still tend to mistake Social Media as just consumer-generated, computer-mediated forums which are auxiliary to Mass Media. In other words, they think Social Media are merely online forums in which topics culled from Mass Media are discussed. Moreover, some traditionalists in the media industries don’t consider Facebook, or other Social Media service companies, to be media companies at all because Social Media companies don’t create any of the contents that Social Media users see. (That’s an odd disqualification, because those traditionalists do consider magazines such as Reader’s Digest or the Utne Reader to be media companies, despite those magazines creating little or none of the contents within their pages.)

By any measurement, Facebook is a media company.  With one-fifth of the world’s population using it, this 11-year old company’s service clearly has mass scale. Only two traditional media company approach such massive reach.. In the People’s Republic of China, a nation in which only the national and local governments broadcast television, the 45 television channels of the national government’s China Central Television (CCTV) reaches a population (1.35 billion) almost as large as the total number of Facebook’s monthly users. However, CCTV’s market share has dropped by one-quarter during the past ten years as an increasing number of Chinese consume online videos from other sources. Furthermore, CCTV’s single most popular show, the once-a-year CCTV New Year’s Gala, reached only 91 percent of China’s people last year. The Western media company that closest approaches Facebook’s mass scale is the United Kingdom’s national British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) whose television and radio programs in 28 languages reach approximately 350 million people worldwide. Facebook clearly has more mass reach and scale than any Mass Media company in the world.

Moreover, Facebook’s business model is a media one. It sells advertising space to companies that want to reach large numbers of consumers; it competes directly with traditional Mass Media companies. Moreover, when measured by Facebook users’ consumption of contents, it is certainly a media company. The topics of contents that a plurality, if not a majority, Facebook consumer, are news, entertainment, and other types contents that traditionally only Mass Media companies produced. A crucial difference with Facebook is that its users also consume those topics from each other and from other sources that aren’t Mass Media companies, such as bloggers, uploaded videos, and many other forms of consumer-generated contents both on Facebook and from outside it. Measured by consumption, Facebook is the largest media company in human history.

Yet it isn’t a Mass Media service, despite it reaching a gargantuan mass of people, selling advertising as a media business model, and a having significant portion of the contents is user consumer being what had traditionally have been purveyed by only Mass Media companies, Facebook, like indeed all Social Media companies, is a manifestations Individuated Media, the opposite of Mass Media. Social Media companies are Individuated Media companies.

The characteristic hallmark of Mass Media, besides its eponymous mass reach, is that all users of a Mass Media product simultaneously receive the same package of its contents. However, each of Facebook’s 1.4 billion users sees a different package of contents than every other Facebook user simultaneously sees. This mix of contents unique for every user. What each user of Facebook sees is entirely based upon what he has previously designated to ‘like’ (i.e., specifics in musical artists, actors, books, movies, brands, products, periodicals, broadcasts) and upon what that individual’s own probably unique mix of friends has posted onto Facebook. Even the advertising he sees is individuated to him. Moreover, each user is able at any time to alter that mix of contents as he sees fit. And no publisher or broadcaster has control over that mix of contents. The only things that all Facebook users see simultaneously are the controls they use to make those alterations.

Individuated Media are any forms of communications in which people obtain news, entertainment, and other information, based upon their own individual needs, interests, and tastes, rather than obtaining exactly the same package of news, entertainment, and other information that other individuals receive. The mix of contents that each of them receives is based upon that person as a unique individual and not as a member of a demographic. Although the initial mix of contents might be based a demographic of that individual and might subsequently include as a factor a behavioral analysis of that individual’s ongoing active consumption of contents, the individual always has the capability at any time to alter, partially or completely, the ongoing mix of contents he receives.

In contrast to Mass Media, Individuated Media are interactive. Many practitioners of Mass Media and too many academicians of Mass Media inadvertently conflate the terms digital and interactive, mistakenly believing that any digitally transmitted communications is interactive. Whenever a Mass Media company’s package of contents is placed online, there is very little interactive about it except the allowance by publisher or broadcaster to permit the user to choose which webpage and the options to hear any audio or see any video or animations embedded or linked to that page. Moreover, the Mass Media company staff unilaterally decided the mix of contents in that package that all users see or hear. It is a one-way process: the media company staff packages the same set of contents that all users simultaneously see and the users can choose what parts of that set of contents to see. The publisher or broadcaster otherwise possesses full control over the mix of contents with which the user is presented.

By contrast, Individuated Media companies and the user share equal control over the mix of contents with which the user is presented. No matter whether the Individuated Media company has a finite and closed inventory of contents (such as Facebook) or a virtually infinite one (such as Google or Baidu), the user can at any time alter or completely change the contents with which he is presented, regardless of his demographics or previous behavior.

Indeed, the academically and technologically accepted meaning of interactive was defined by Dr. Jonathan Steuer (later one of the founders of Wired.com) in a 1992 article entitled Defining virtual realities: Dimensions determining telepresence in the Journal of Communications :

Interactivity is the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time. Interactivity in this sense is distinct from engagement or involvement as these terms are frequently used by communication researchers. [Italicizations from the original.]

Providing a package of contents (i.e., edition or program or program schedule) which the user cannot alter at will is not interactive (moving from one webpage to another isn’t alteration). Many Mass Media executives whose company repurpose online their printed edition’s or broadcasts’ contents might argue that what they provide is interactive because they allow users to choose which webpage to select from within a finite set of webpages that they provide simultaneously to all users. However, that is as interactive as publishing a printed book and claiming that its physical pages are interactive because the reader is able to select which of its pages to read. By contrast, true interactivity has two characteristics.

If the contents are print or still photographs, true interactivity allows the user the capability to exceed any finite selection of contents that a media company might otherwise provide to all users simultaneously. In other words, it can provide all the stories from which a Mass Media company’s editors selected to provide to everyone at that time. For instance, the average daily newspaper in the United States receives at least a dozen, if not dozens of, stories from its own journalist plus hundreds of stories from news services and syndicates, all stories submitted for publication; yet the editor normally select only a subset of all those stories to include in the package they provide to all readers that day. A truly interactive service would allow the readers themselves to select from among all the stories submitted for publication, not just those the editors selected.  Or, in the case of broadcasting (a term which would be a misnomer in Individuated Media), if the contents are video, animation, or other forms of motion story-telling, true interactivity would allow the user the capability to alter the flow or outcome of the story told, within the parameters possible. For examples, a cinematic motion picture is not interactive, but a video game is.

When the Web 2 era began providing consumer-generated contents online, it vastly increased the possible inventory of contents available to Individuated Media. For examples, virtually every Mass Media company limit the contents that its users can see to contents created by that Mass Media company plus contents which the company receives from only other companies (such as wire services and syndicates) which the Mass Media company has licensed or otherwise contracted. By contrast, users of Individuated Media companies generally have access to all available contents online; any individual, blog, organization, company, or other party can freely contribute contents, without prior permission of that Individuated Media company. The only exceptions for that are the nature contents be within the guidelines of the Individuated Media company (such as no pornography, etc.)

Several Individuated Media services that aren’t Social Media have arisen since the turn of the millennium. Most of these provide musical content, but some newer ones provided text stories and photos. Pandora Radio, last.fm, and several others provide customized music services to users. The selections within the musical stream that a user hears are based upon that user’s own preferences of musical genres and artists. Moreover, those services use a form of collaborative filtering to play other selections that the user might not have pre-selected or expected but that the user might enjoy based upon his preferences. These individuated music services have become phenomenally popular. For example, Pandora Radio, whose number of user is growing 20 percent annually, has more than 150 million users worldwide, of which more than 80 million listen ‘regularly’. That is more any single music radio station in the world and more than seven times that of the most popular Mass Media radio company, Sirius XM Radio.

The trend towards individuation of services is beginning to spread throughout the media industries. Flipboard is a individuated service that provides its users with a customized selection of textual and photographic contents based upon each users choices of traditional content providers (such as newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters), newer providers (such as major blogs), and from the selections that the user’s friends using Flipboard. The result is a customized magazine for that user, with contents that can change in real-time. I’ve also encountered entrepreneurs who plan to launch individuated video services, which would provide users with customized cinematic and television (plus videos uploaded to YouTube, Vimeo, and other online video repositories) contents based upon each users preferences of genres, actors, plots, locations, etc.

Because these individuated music or text/photograph services provide copyrighted contents from traditional Mass Media companies, they license those contents and thus aren’t able to provide unlimited selections of items to their users. Nevertheless, their licensing efforts grow ever more successful as their user numbers grow. Pandora Radio, for examples, has already licensed more than 800,000 musical tracks from more than 80,000 artists.

The algorithmic form of collaborative filtering that these music or text/photography services use to provide unexpected items to each users which that user did not predesignate involves (a) recording all selections that that user predesignated plus others that he subsequently ‘liked’, (b) finding other users who made the same combination of predesignations and ‘likes’, (c) finding any additional musical items or text/photograph pages that those users predesignated or ‘liked’ that the user hasn’t heard, and (d) streaming those additional items or pages to that user as suggestions or recommendations. This algorithmic form of collaborative filtering is different from the organic form of collaborative filtering used in Social Media, in which the user’s choices of friends and acquaintances, rather than a computerized algorithm, provide additional items they like, suggest, or recommend. Such methods of algorithmic collaborative filtering also provide the ability for serendipitous discovery by the user, much as if an editor or friend suggested something the user hadn’t known or might never have discovered had he been provided only with the categories or genres of contents that he predesignated or preselected.

Individuated Media services have become wildly popular tapping a latent need that Mass Media couldn’t satisfy: providing each of their users with a mix of contents that more precisely matches that user’s needs, interests, and tastes. These services have begun making Mass Media companies’ general-interest editions or programs obsolete because none of those editions or programs can match that mix. The decline of Mass Media in the post-industrial countries reflects the rise of Individuated Media in those countries.

However wildly popular, all current forms of Individuated Media, such as search engines, Social Media, and the types of services that Pandora Radio, Flipboard, and similar companies provide, these are inchoate forms of Individuated Media and will be rapidly evolving in future years as their developers refine their algorithms, increase their inventories of available contents, and as technology advances into the era of the Semantic Web (‘Web 3’).  The prime flaw of all current Social Media is that they are proprietary systems; ‘closed-source’ systems in that a person who is a customer of one Social Medium service can’t access or interact with friends or contents on another Social Medium. However, there are many technological precedents during the past 20 years — the triumph of the open-source Internet over proprietary online services such as Minitel, Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online, etc.; the rise of open-source Linux as a viable alternative to server software from Apache, Microsoft, etc.; and other examples — which might indicate that ‘open-source’ solutions are likely to be developed and replace these proprietary Social Media services. Although more than eight years’ work by the OpenSocial movement’s work to do so hasn’t succeeded and has retracted its scope, the century is still early.

Whatever the pace of development, Individuated Media is likely to succeed Mass Media worldwide because Individuated Media can provide a more satisfying mix of contents to people than any Mass Media newspaper, magazines, or broadcast can. The gargantuan success of Social Media, Pandora Radio, Flipboard, and other services in less than a dozen years illustrates that.

Next webpage: Personalization, Customization, Individuation, and New Media.

Index of the Rise of Individuated Media webpages

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