There are stages in your life and career when you have an opinion on another opinion almost instantaneously. Shonali Burke had it when Ragan published that AVE piece recently and she gave a fitting reply.

My turn now. Not on AVE. But on Tom Foremski’s passionate plea to help him find ‘social media’.

Where? I don’t see it.

Where is social media?

Where is social media?

I’m just quoting how Tom’s trying his best to find social media. After a few well-worded arguments, he concludes,

So, shouldnâ??t we retire the term social media? We should call it what it has now become: social distribution of (mass) media. Itâ??s a sad end to a promising start of what could have become a new era in media.

Let me try to answer some of Tom’s questions.

1. “I see a world of mass media where a few large media brands still control most of the media output and thus the conversation around the topics that they choose.

Almost every survey, large and small, has concluded that what we ‘share’ and ‘amplify’ on social media is straight out of mainstream, mass media. I’m not going to dispute that at all; in fact we see this all the more, in India, if not in other countries.

This is just one side of the story.

Mainstream media has always been the source of news and views for us, common folks. We have always discussed, shared and opined on news that we gather from mainstream media. We did it earlier in physical gatherings (in the home, office or other places) and we do it now using online tools where we all seem to be connected all the time. This is nothing new.

What is new, however, is that mainstream media now has a channel to listen and understand how we, common folks, react to their reporting and opinions. This was a closed channel and involved cumbersome methods like writing a letter. Then we emailed the media. Now, we, in the name of sharing it with the media, also air it out to the rest of the world. On social media.

In other terms, we do not treat mainstream media as the other side of the conversation; that special position is long gone. They are just yet another particpant in the conversation we are having amongst people we know and trust. If mainstream media representatives behave and act responsibly, they could win our trust.

Bottomline? Mainstream media does control most of the media output. But the chatter that we create around them, with or without mainstream media’s awareness or participation is a much bigger phenomenon that has and is changing the way mainstream media reports.

2. “We seem to have convinced ourselves that we are living in the age of ‘social media’ where citizen journalists are producing tons of great content and upsetting the balance of power in the media world.

This, again, is just one side of the story.

Having addressed this part in detail, in a February 2010 post in this blog (Is mainstream media losing its relevance?), let me qoute a relevant portion.

Mainstream news media, till the arrival of social media, held an inordinate amount of control over opinions. But today, every one with an internet connection is showcasing his/ her opinion â?? as a blog post, comment, video, photo and so on. Right, wrong, biasedâ?¦well, those are opinions too! Is it blasphemy to compare journalistic opinion with blogs? Of course, thatâ??s what it sounds like, but that is precisely the danger journalists/ mainstream news media is facing, when it comes to opinions.

It is opinions part that is gradually being disintermediated from mainstream news media, while they still hold the reigns on news reporting.

However, mainstream news mediaâ??s influence in creating and communicating opinions is not on the wane â?? rather, the speed with which social media is launching a barrage of opinions is alarming! Mainstream media no doubt has some of the most influential voices who have built an impressive profile for themselves over the years, but, with the onslaught of social media, they have a formidable, collective opponent.

What the opponent does not have is an influential platform. This is where search comes into playâ?¦in enabling access, usually aggregated, to opinions on assorted topics, from social media. It still isnâ??t perfect, but is a decent work-in-progress.

3. “It would be more accurate to describe this as social distribution of media â?? it most definitely is not social media. People are behaving like an online newspaper delivery boy. Thatâ??s not as compelling as the original promise of social media, and its implied challenge to the powerful owners of mass media.

And we’re back – this is just one side of the story.

Yes, people are behaving like online newspaper delivery boys. But have you noticed two important things?

People don’t deliver entire newspapers. They deliver only what interests them!

And, the other big thing – they don’t seem to be delivering these specific pieces of their interests to all and sundry. They seem to be doing it with only those whom they trust and are connected with, at some level, through some tool.

What does this mean?

The former means the same thing that meant when entire albums paved way for singles, in the music distribution business. We, the people, have a choice, accorded by social media. To select what we need and share what we need. We don’t have to go with pre-packaged material. We broke things into pieces based on convenience, much to the annoyance of mainstream media that loves the packaging.

The latter is even more pertinent. Mainstream media chose the broadcasting approach to reach as many people as possible. In the process, context and focus went out of the window. Social media, in a way, through its myriad connections, is bringing the narrowcasting approach back…to get context and focus back into the game.

So, the whole of a newspaper is not relevant to me anymore. Only a part of it is…could be. I may buy the entire publication to find that small/big part; or I may depend on a social connection to share that with me. The source is of course mainstream media, but notice how we have created our own rival distribution and context mechanism using social media tools. This is changing everything within the mainstream media fabric – the way they allocate resources to specific divisions, the way they change distribution in a way that it makes sense in the social media age and the way they sell space to advertisers.


To sum up, I still stand by my February 2010 post on how mainstream media is still relevant in delivering what we need to know, in terms of news. But I’m not ready to change the term ‘social media’ as ‘social distribution of media’. That’s just a myopic perspective. There is most definitely a ‘social media’, unlike what Tom would like us to believe. It cannot (yet) rival organized media (mainstream media by another name) in producing quality content, but it significantly rivals any form of organized media in terms of amount of content (what is usually dismissed as ‘chatter’) produced.

The question of ‘quality content’ vs ‘a lot of content’ arises, of course. But there are enough players out there who are trying their best to organize, arrange and create predictable and consistent methods to make that huge amount of content available in meaningful ways. It’s already working with the set of tools we have currently and I’m sure it’d work much better in the future.



4 thoughts on “Countering Tom Foremski’s farewell to social media

  1. Fab read, Karthik, and thank you for the shout out. Pew did some research a while back that showed “new” stories were still primarily generated by MSM – this was a little over a year ago so I’d have to go see if there are any updates.

    But I think what you said here: “People donâ??t deliver entire newspapers. They deliver only what interests them!” – is the key to understanding and using SM.

    While I am far more likely to find out about world events (the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the Japan earthquake, etc.) through SM, it’s not because I’m avidly watching the streams of MSM outlets; they are so one-way that they bore me. It’s because I see those popping up in the streams of REAL people I talk to, so I know something’s going on. I think you hit the nail on the head.

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