Convergence & Coherence on the Möbius Strip

[January 27, 2010]

Over the last few years, the word “convergence” has gained a certain cache as a symbol of the intersection between technology and society. In our heart of hearts, it seems to me, we’re still daydreaming about “The World of Tomorrow,” a concept of the future as old as the past (see also the 1964 version).

But a visit to the YouTube presence on Facebook will quickly bring you down to earth. Suddenly, everything feels out of kilter, as if the Force of Gravity had started hanging out in Electromagnetism bars on weekends. That’s because media convergence is meaningless in the abstract, without a guiding social and cultural context. Caught in the vortex of such titanic cultural forces the content’s original meaning is quickly atomized.

A Walk on the Strip.
Step back for a moment and admire this Möbius strip of promotion as consumption and vice versa. Suppose I post a video on YouTube which you share with your Facebook friends. Back on Facebook you visit the official YouTube Facebook page, comment on my video and—before you can say “grandfather paradox”—your comment can appear on YouTube proper.

All I need to do is repost your comment on FriendFeed and the continuous recontextualization of my original video is carried a step further. Is this a good thing, an interesting thing, a relevant thing? Well maybe, but I won’t know for sure until our entire exchange is recapitulated on Mashable.

Done right, I suppose, this game of post and repost as a series of ripostes could become a sport or even an art form. We’ve already seen how effective recontextualization can be with “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” of a few years back. But can it be more than a game, more than a way to tweet about making toast or make a toast to your latest tweet with a Facebook beer?

To me, that’s a key question. If, as media experts, we want clients to believe that positioning themselves next to Chad Vader, Day Shift Manager will help move the needle, we need to convince them that social networking can be more than idle chatter.

Delusion by Dilution
The mere presence of cause marketing apps on Facebook isn’t enough. We have to establish that consumers do more in social space than provide background data for future anthropologists. While YouTube’s appearance on Facebook feels as inevitable as traffic jams on Thanksgiving, it’s not a model for meaningful media convergence. It’s merely the watery gruel of substance by association.

To create meaningful consumer interaction with brands we need to give consumers something to do besides gossip, share gossip and gossip about the sharing of gossip. Even in cases where we ask people to share their personal experience with a serious topic, we must give their responses shape, context and purpose.

Simply compiling vast libraries of such responses and displaying them in the order received is of little value. All it does is create a weak, generalized sense of empowerment. Like YouTube and Facebook themselves, such libraries can only function as a kind of “random access memory” for an online community.

What’s needed, as I see it, are the structures to drive user-generated content into coherent channels. The more coherent online discourse becomes, the more it can serve a real function: Not merely to help brands “keep up with the millenials,” but to shape perception and motivate consumers to take action.

Fine Tune the iTune.
At a simpler level, I believe a more structured approach to online engagement would increase response, quantitatively and qualitatively. There’s nothing more discouraging, for example, than firing off a heated response to a New York Times article just to see it languish as Comment 532 of 897. Knowing in advance that their contributions will be effectively channeled to others with a similar mindset, need or personal commitment, people are much more likely to contribute, and contribute something relevant.

So as much as we continue to marvel at the impact of social media outlets on public opinion and brand marketing, it’s time we began to manage this burgeoning natural resource. Otherwise, that vital impact will soon be lost, as the sheer volume of random electronic call and response turns an ocean of cultural vitality into a desert of cultural trivia.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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