The Scale of Social Media

If you look at the top-ranked sites online — Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Blogger, MySpace — a surprising number have not been cracked by the creative industry. Sure, there’s media space on these sites and there has been the occasional one-off idea that’s been a hit with users or the industry press, but there hasn’t been much in the way of a repeatable, successful formula. Display ads don’t work that great, Facebook apps are a media ghetto, paid YouTube ads have to compete with user-generated content that lawyers do not look at before the video is uploaded. It’s rough!

Some of this is not due to a lack of ideas. There are tons of fresh ideas, but most are hard to execute consistently. One reason: media has been spending more time working on the user experience and not as much energy on servicing the creative industry. This is changing though, as the strategy of getting a ton of traffic first and then figuring out a profit model later is proving too inefficient. Also, thanks to the down economy, many of the major social-media sites are taking another look at the user experience in terms of the marketing industry. Media properties have also reached a massive scale where it’s imperative that they have a good relationship with the creative industry.

The good news for us is that the scale offers some exciting new opportunities, and we can look forward to a lot more features and infrastructure being added to make major sites more creative friendly.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the “non-friend filter.” The closer a social network gets to “everyone you know” being there, the more opportunities you have for creativity. I had a revelation when I watched President Obama address Congress live on CNN with Facebook Connect. If you didn’t try it yourself, basically there was a live video stream with a chat window next to it that was comprised of just my Facebook friends commenting on the video, live. It is basically a live chat + Web TV experience, which while not new, was in this case actually a lot of fun. I realized it was fun because there were no random jerks. The Internet is actually full of random jerks that I don’t care about watching TV with. But I was using Facebook as a non-friend filter; I wasn’t using it to be more social, or to find my friends, but to weed out the non-friends.

This is a compelling new option for creativity. If you use social networks as a non-friend filter, you can create an experience around your brand where there aren’t any strangers. There are some massive opportunities here. For instance, if you’ve ever tried an online campaign that involved user comments, you know that your client freaks out because of the liabilities of free public speech — mostly because of the random jerks. The situation they’re worried about is having a stranger read something inflammatory from another stranger and then that exchange being associated with your brand in a public way. But if all of the comments are only visible to each person’s social group, who cares? If it’s just my friends and me, clients can feel comfortable letting us do what we want.

While scale can help create many micro-communities, it can also work the other way around and make a single subject interesting to many. The recent Skittles.com redesign is a good example. It’s taking advantage of social media as a brand filter by showing you Twitter comments (also Flickr photos) that have the word “Skittles” in them, for better or worse. This is possible because Twitter is becoming a real mass medium. It’s so big even Oprah’s endorsed it, along with every major content creator, and there are actually tons of new posts every day that include the word Skittles. Twitter was invented as a micro-publishing platform, so it might seem at first that if you want to be on Twitter, you need to do what everyone else is doing with it, i.e., publish. But Skittles realized it’s even more useful to be the subject of a tweet than to tweet. It’s an excellent way of feeling out the collective consciousness to see if what your brand is doing out in the world is working.

There are other media properties that may want to consider adding social features to create new revenue streams. Hulu would be an interesting example. Someone told me recently that because his grandfather saw Hulu’s Super Bowl commercial — which is helping it to position itself as a mass medium — he’s now using Hulu to watch old Three Stooges episodes. Right now there are no features on Hulu for my friend to watch shows remotely with his grandfather, but that doesn’t seem like a far away possibility. I’m not sure if there are brands hankering for the lucrative grandfather + grandson combo demographic, but what a social-watching situation gives you is insight into the makeup of your audience in a way you didn’t have before — and you could do specific creative work that appeals to the exact social circumstances of the viewers.

This industry has always been about big ideas, but it’s been a rarity for ideas to get truly big in the digital space because nearly every time we have a new idea we have to create a new community around it to make it big. Some of the work has been done for us, though. There are big audiences out there, groups forming around software and mutual interest, and there are new opportunities to show our ideas to a big group.

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group. He can be reached at Benjamin@barbariangroup.com.