The Construct of Good & Media Transcendence #SXSWi #NYTimes #metathinking #publishing #ecosystems #transmedia
I’ve had a bit of a catharsis.
This exploration may start out feeling a bit clinical, and lengthy, but what I am about to share with you may help you understand the value of who you are and what it is that you do.
So please, bear with me.
A new virtual pal of mine, Venessa Miemis, wrote a wonderfully inspirational piece just this week on how networks solve the problem of complexity in an interconnected world. It got me thinking about the Greater Good and the dynamics pointing to how media can transcend cultural mores and create extraordinary mindshifts.
Among many key insights, what struck a chord with me was the notion of what “social” really is and what “networks” mean in the greater context of the world, our meaning and roles as individuals, and how improving the world is not only a shared responsibility, but a necessity that we simply cannot ignore, especially as brands and marketers.
I just got back from SXSWi, and I had a lot of time to roam the conference halls in search of my own interpretation of this amidst all the chaos and hype. I did have a chance to attend some excellent panel discussions, most notably one led by Clay Shirky, and another led by the folks from the New York Times (sorry, I can’t remember the panel names, but I assure you the exchanges were superb).
Several things became abundantly clear to me after listening to these discussions and in having some very intense chats with a few colleagues shortly thereafter:
Media is not fragmented, content is.
Shirky has eloquently and pointedly described this as “filter failure” and it seems to be all too true. He has also pointed out that there are 3 different modes of sharing: goods, services and information - only information can be shared without losing anything. This means that we are increasingly becoming more commoditized, and the attention-deficit economy is only adding fuel to this fire. The good news? Our distribution pipeline is robust, and we have plenty of opportunities to start filling it with better, more meaningful stuff.
Granted, the concept of “good” is subjective, but it doesn’t have to be. The social web, for example, provides us with consensus on passions, interests and desires... Why are we not developing more narratives around these sentiments and topics? Listening shouldn’t be reactive, it should be proactive. And guess what? In doing so, it removes a lot of the guesswork we amass in our media assumptions. Further, it bridges the gaps between the notions of paid, earned and owned, and allows us to focus on what’s most important: the eloquent redistribution of information and ideas. This involves ecosystemic attributes that can be likened to those in the chart below.
Social communications are and should be all about real-world experiences & real-world change.
We’ve spent years mostly manipulating behavior as opposed to changing it. Social channels are often thought of or repurposed as direct marketing vehicles. Whether they are indeed effective in this way or not is beside the point. Media communications, of any type, should inspire meaningful action. Period. Plenty of brands have been getting into the act, and are doing so not just through philanthropic means – they are encouraging people to look at the world through a different lens: their own.
This is certainly not to say that things like augmented reality or ARG extensions can’t be used in meaningful ways because they certainly can, it’s just that they must provide the looking glasses for the truths that are not so self-evident. Brands must also realize that the only way to stay relevant in the world is to help improve it. Now it’s time to get everybody else – from entertainment studios, to non-profits, to advocacy groups, to technology companies and the like – to start playing substantively in the same sandbox. We know one very fundamental thing... People don’t care who gives them the opportunity, they just want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and to make their actions, regardless of how big or small they are, matter.
Utility is no longer a marketing function, it’s a life function.
When Google recently got into the smart grid business, they sent a message to every utility, media and technology company in the world: if you continue to treat yourself as a commodity, you will soon cease to exist. Some look at this move as a veritable pawn strike by the search giant for world domination, but lest we forget that they were among the first to offer services and utilities for free, and have encouraged co-collaboration from their inception. Does this make them smarter or better? Perhaps both.
But perhaps the bigger question we must ask ourselves is, “What is the impetus for growth?” In my humble estimation, it is to empower people. Naturally, in Google’s case, this may disrupt and even cannibalize some of their constituent businesses, but one must also assume that the longer-term goal is to synthesize human communication and interaction in ways that fuel innovation, as well as cure our environmental, social, political and financial ills. In other words, walled gardens can’t flourish outside of themselves, and there is a limit to the consumptive patterns that bind them. What is utility now? It is something that gives us the ability to better ourselves, and in the process, establish a greater connectivity with others.
Value co-creation is the real product of our social interactions. And human innovation.
We should offer high praise to the likes of Lawrence Lessig, C.K. Prahalad, M.S. Krishnan, Alex Bruns and many others for pointing out that real value is the by-product of collaboration. We can remix content, create new experiences and share them with each other, and then bake commerce elements into a social context that is not only resonant, but transformative.
My colleague, Scott Walker, has astutely pointed out that this will either be our sacrificial lamb or our death knell when it comes to product development and franchise modeling. And whether or not we can actually get lawyers, product engineers, marketers and supply chain managers to sit at the same table from the onset is anyone’s guess, but the fact remains that the market will move right past us if we don’t. Just as MP3s revolutionized music sharing and left the labels effectively in the dust, we have some serious thinking to do as agencies and curators about how to reverse-engineer the development process and tie our bottom line to those who are willing to invest their own IP and good fortunes alongside of us.
[image created by Scott Walker]
Storytelling (and storymaking) is the fiber of an ongoing, vibrant social discourse.
The hypersocial nature of objects, systems and networks have existed as long as we have walked the Earth. We must not forget that is this very thing that allowed us to survive and flourish as a species. Stories naturally added, extended and proliferated our legacies as people. However, we seem to have reached a formative impasse – we all too often think that we need to orate as a function of self-preservation, rather than one of true participation and collective innovation. Being extraordinary requires an essential return to the truth. It also requires that we enlist the help of each other. Why? Because fundamental truths, and their rediscovery, are not the machinations of the individual, rather the revelatory offerings culled by virtue of those things we so fervently love to identify as context and community.
Case in point: historically, look at how often genius has failed. F. Scott Fitzgerald was hired by Fox Studios during the Zanuck Era and was quickly fired as a screenwriter (he was told by one studio executive, with furious exclamation, that “we don’t shoot adjectives”). The great Ralph Ellison only completed one novel, Invisible Man, before he passed away (Nineteenth was later re-edited and published, but he only had the novel and a collection of essays and short stories to show for what was quite an illustrious life). Citizen Kane was Orson Welles’s only critically acclaimed and commercially successful work (albeit genuis, but again, to the point...). Another auteur, Krzysztof Kieslowski, defied the studio paradigm and has turned out magnificent work, an epos of social narrative, to no real commercial viability or great success. And then, of course, there are all the artists who have lived in obscurity and whose works never came to light until well after they left this Earth. The larger point? They all could have leaned more on communities of people, networks, to help their greatness be harnessed and cultivated for our collective benefit.
Journalism must be revitalized & re-institutionalized in order to help cultivate participatory culture.
Another colleague, good friend and spiritual confidant, Brendan Howley, an anti-war crimes advocate, screenwriter and Random House author of several novels, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative journalist, only to find himself in the lurch when it came to his own journalistic and editorial credibility – he often priced himself right out of the market. This is no small tragedy, especially when you consider his many talents and his overwhelming proclivity for seeing underneath the surface of things (and often to his own physical danger or intellectual detriment). Brendan is like thousands, if not millions, of people who have suffered from a pandemic failure to be recognized for their contributions as journalists and engender a sense of true cultural identity... One that can be passed on to create new value systems and paradigms that can be shared and created across networks, ethnographies and shifting mindsets. Is the answer for social publishers like Gawker to hire “new journalists” by the thousands? Will this reconstruct our notions of the paywall? Maybe, maybe not.
The New Times panel debate at SXSWi was an interesting one because it clearly delineated the power struggle that has become publishing, and one of the many reasons why people use social networks to pick off “the most interesting bits” of information, rather than contribute more earnestly to experiences that inspire them to challenge themselves and each other in the daily discourse of life. William Safire, the expansive linguist and one of the great literary philosophers of our time, flourished under the pretext of conversation and its subsequent meaning, not the abject desire to be heard, or the need to muscle his way around mindshare through lofty prose. He examined the human condition through a curious and incurable love of semantics. The irony is that he did this largely without the benefit of technology. Meanwhile, we have all these amazing social tools at our disposal with which to extract meaning out of everyday circumstance and use language as a new means to connect and reconnect, yet we most often rest on our media laurels and watch the world turn. As a marketer, this simply baffles me.
We can recontextualize history. Literally.
The Czech Holocaust was never memorialized. My own father, a survivor of the German Holocaust, has been waiting his entire life for the acknowledgment of the suppressed masses (and not just inclusive of his own people) — a Faustian rendition of epic proportions. We have seen some of the worst atrocities in humankind just in the last century – Vietnam, Korea, Serbia, Poland, Somalia, the list goes on and on – and yet we largely exist within the Western world in a vacuum. We fight over resources we don’t have. Our greed is beyond reproach at times. We use science as means to justify absolutes. We are capable of a many great things, but we neutralize our intent with ghastly acts... And also by sheer inactivity. What’s worse, our accounts of these events in history are often inaccurate and/or incomplete.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There really are such things as social capital and social capitalism, and there is a reason – while possibly unbeknownst to us – why we have not completely buried ourselves, despite ourselves. Perhaps our true potential is about to be realized. Perhaps the world – the living, breathing thing that exists beyond all of us - is waiting for us to get out of our own way. But first, we must rebuild our collective past in order to create new benchmarks for building our collective future. And we can do this primarily through storytelling. We can make learning fun again. We can attain enlightenment through each other. And we can create leaders out of the most unlikely people, those individuals borne out of circumstances that currently will not allow them to flourish as contributors to society at large.
We must replace our media hubris with humility... Otherwise, it will be our collective undoing.
Media, as a practice, is the one of the most, if not the most, powerful things in the world. Yet, by and large, we defer to celebrity, we isolate our thinking and we attempt to control the gateways of self-expression. It is shameful, self-interested and self-destructive. And now, unfortunately, we are witnessing in many ways the downfall of systematic ideation and innovation. Look at what’s happening to the independent film market, TV networks, online media networks, publishers, you name it – they’re all eating away at themselves. Their self-importance fails to look at the bigger picture, which is that human behavior is adaptive, and begs for truthful inclusion.
Sure, we can build amazing tools and we can create more accessibility to the things we don’t necessarily need (and of course, sell them), but what will we say to ourselves when the well runs dry and “consumers” have truly taken over our media lives? We will be kicking ourselves for not properly nurturing relationships and helping to guide people down paths of self-realization. And the kicker? There is, arguably, far more potential profit in doing good than not.
Ultimately, this isn’t about consumption, or even attribution, but about people, and turning, as Seth Godin puts it, our work into art. And we have lots of work to do to improve the world.
On a final note...
Here’s a little story that might bring things around full circle. A transmedia tale, if you will.
My father escaped Nazi Germany with his immediate family in 1940 and took the trans-Siberian railroad into Shanghai, China. He was barely eight years old. Most of his family, as you might imagine, were either killed in holding and concentration camps or were stripped of their rights to life and practice. They settled in what was one of the original ghettos, a series of tenements that lined the outskirts of the city, and a territory, among many others, that was occupied by the Japanese. There they shared a small, confined space with other immigrants, including a Catholic priest and several ministers.
The very first time my father had a Hershey’s chocolate bar and a Coke they literally fell out of the sky. The alliance fighters – an air regiment of British, French and American pilots similar to “The Doolittle Flyers” (modeled after Jimmy Doolittle, an American fighter pilot who later led bombing raids over Tokyo) - would make frequent drops of “care packages” for these impoverished areas. Children like my father would delight in these gifts, sharing them despite their hunger and malnourishment, and would gleefully spread the word to others in the community when the packages arrived. The drops became the stuff legend and lore, and in many ways, created legacy experiences for these families, and even unusual affinities for these associated brands.
Sure enough, when my father arrived in San Francisco, CA in 1948 (at the ripe age of fifteen), his uncle bought him boxes of Hershey’s chocolate bars and cases of Coke.
Brands aside, this series of events might seem familiar to you, something you might’ve seen in the Spielberg epic, Empire of the Sun. Now imagine if we could tie these events together, and using collaborative entertainment as the primary storytelling medium, we could bring generations of people into the fold, all participating with their own renditions of this narrative, in and around these events, or, through derivations thereof. Further, what if we could bring together millions of Holocaust survivors and their families to share their stories, lay their pains to rest and develop new knowledge-sharing practices so that, wishfully, we never face these atrocities again.
It’s very clear to me now why my father became a physician. Why his work became art. Because through every slight gesture, and every painful decision, he knew he could help improve the world. I can’t tell you how many times people have heard my name in passing on the street and they have come up to me expressing their extreme gratitude for the fact that my father saved their lives.
Here’s the open ending to this little tale, why it’s so important to pay it forward, and how media can transcend.
In 2001, my father went into heart failure. We had been unable to find him a transplant donor, and he had reached a point in which he was on life support, he could hardly breathe and he wanted to check out because the pain from intubation was so excrutiating. At exactly 3 AM one fateful morning, in his very final moments of the fight, we received a phone call from an unknown location in northern California. Three hours later, a helicopter arrived with a new heart. Seven hours later he was walking, smiling and cracking jokes.
Another gift from the sky.
This is why we exist.
It isn’t innately scientific. It isn’t innately mathematic. It may not even be secular. It just is.
Up until a year or so ago, I didn’t truly understand this. But I do now. I’ve spent my entire life, and namely the last fifteen years of my career, trying to understand my role in the world. I’ve been angry, ashamed and many times disconnected. It’s been difficult to comprehend my lineage and the injustices my family has faced on both sides (I also have Native American blood). The world, quite frankly, has dealt us a strange hand.
But I would rather defer to love, compassion and empathy to define my sense of purpose. Because the world demands it. And because I can.
As for the construct of Good and media transcendence, we already possess the power and the passion to see it through. This is only the beginning, and perhaps our rebirth. The question remains whether or not we are willing to do something about it. Right here, right now.
I hope these words find you well, and that you are ready to transform the nature of things. We have lots of work to do, together.