Who Owns Social Media?


There are three worlds. Or perhaps I should say three environments. And whether you know it or not, you're living in all three right now.

Let's start off with the physical world, also known as the real world (and I'm not talking about an MTV program). The physical world, from a media standpoint, is the one governed by television, radio and print. It's also the world in which most word-of-mouth conversations happen. Face to face.
Then there's the digital world. Web 1.0. The world of Web sites. Of big, Flash-based, SEO-unfriendly "skip intro" edifices built to glorify brands. This is the world of e-mails, banners and buttons. It's a world of advergames and gargantuan portals. And it's become synonymous with "traditional interactive" -- a sterile wasteland devoid of life, creativity and innovation.

Finally, there's the virtual world. Yes, it includes the obvious virtual reality, the maligned Second Life, MMORPG experiences like World of Warcraft and more kid-friendly environments like Club Penguin or Webkinz. But, I would argue, it also includes blogs, podcasts, presence applications like Twitter and social networks. My definition of a virtual world is any environment that utilizes avatar and/or profile-based participation, with the option of anonymity. In short, it's a place or space where people can interact with other people in ways they could never do in the "real" or digital worlds.

So where does social media fall? The obvious answer is right in the middle of these three worlds, which is exactly why neither a digital agency nor the PR industry is equipped to deliver against the three-pronged imperative of community, dialogue and partnership.

Digital agencies today are stuck somewhere between scalability hell (tasked with automating and compartmentalizing the lowly impression) and storytelling schlock (replicating obtuse and detached hyperbole in an advertising-unfriendly environment). It's a world governed by performance-based pricing and ad networks on the one side and pre-roll advertising and clunky Web builds on the other.

Exactly where and when did the digital space earn the stripes and credentials to tackle the high roads of authenticity, transparency or peer-to-peer collaboration (just to name a few of conversational marketing's core tenets)?

The PR business is really no better and no worse than the digital one when it comes to social credentials. With its claim of being champions of "earned media," it tacked the word "relations" onto blogger, lumped it together with "media relations" and "journalist relations," and somehow went unchallenged.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying PR shouldn't be at the table. I'm just questioning how "relations" between corporations and journalists equate with real people hanging out with other real people.

Whereas the digital space has very little claim to the "physical" world and hasn't proven itself in the virtual space, the PR industry resides more comfortably in the physical world, with a superficial grasp of the digital space and an anemic understanding of the virtual one.

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