Nothing changes everything

Posted on April 4, 2007 10:09 am by | Blogging | Media | Participatory Communication | Social Media | Social Networking

I am overly tired of the “X is dead” redundancy. I understand the enthusiasm with which those who spout “X is dead” embrace what they believe in, but communication channels rarely die because of the advent of something new, even when that new thing represents a revolutionary, paradigm-changing development. Print didn’t replace face-to-face communication, after all, and television didn’t kill radio.

I’ll bet the first person to leave a comment who’s willing to take the bet $100 (US) that I’ll be able to buy a newspaper in 10 years. (We’ll exchange contact details and I promise to get in touch in a decade.) The newspaper I’m able to buy in 2017 won’t seem a lot like the newspapers we read today. It will be filled more with local content, columns, features and analysis. It will contain longer content. It’ll be smaller, exist in a market of few newspapers, and people will buy fewer of them. But dead? Not a chance.

The notion that young people aren’t reading newspapers and that attrition will spell their doom is equally silly. I read a study not too long ago that suggested kids are reading newspapers in communities where the newspapers are publishing content about (can you feel it coming?) kids. What a shock: Kids will read newspapers if they contain material that’s interesting to them and unavailable elsewhere. Kids are not inherently opposed to print. My daughter, Princess of Digital, still wants me to go with her to Borders so she can buy a (gasp) book. That’s right, she wants to read novels in book form, paper and ink and everything. Ketchum’s recent media usage study (PDF file)  confirms that plenty of young people are reading newspapers.

Other things that are “dead,” according to a variety of people:

  • Intranets, because all you need are employee blogs. But I wouldn’t want to use employee blogs to enroll in my benefits or find the company policy on maternity leave.
  • Terrestrial radio, because podcasting and satellite radio will kill it. As long as it’s free and comes with your car, terrestrial radio will stick around. Besides, commercial radio is better in some places (like the UK) than it is in the US, where we tend to make sweeping claims based on the way things are here as though the rest of the world doesn’t exist.
  • Company websites, because of RSS feeds and widgets.

All the “X is dead because of social media” memes stand in stark contrast to the “social media is dead” refrain being sung in some quarters. One blog suggests that the death threat leveled against Kathy Sierra and the ensuing blogstorm is proof of social media’s failure. The argument goes like this: Open the door to widespread conversation and inevitably the worst in people will find its way into the mix.

Of course, there’s nothing remotely new in the notion that some people are jerks and they will be jerks online with even greater vigor than off—especially when they can exercise their jerkiness from behind the mask of anonymity, as did the pond scum who threatened Kathy Sierra. Such behavior has been on display online since the days of UseNet, which goes back to 1979. Why this spells the end of social media, though, is a conclusion that I just cannot understand.

Social media itself is not new. UseNet is 28 years old. FidoNet was started 23 years ago. Nothing was more popular at America Online than its chat rooms and message boards. Consumer opinion sites like Epinions flourish. Consumer-written reviews on retail sites like and iTunes influence purchases.

The only thing that has changed in this era of Social Media is that barriers to entry have been obliterated making it easier for more people to participate. Posting to a Usenet discussion or creating a website used to be complex enough that these resources were accessible only to the very geeky and the very determined. Now, two minutes at and anybody can have a website where they can engage in one of the most ancient of human behaviors: being heard.

When you think about it, paintings on cave walls were the earliest form of blogging, an effort by an individual to say, “Here’s what I did today,” a pre-language journal entry. Blogs simply amplify the content, making it available to a larger audience and enabling what we call a “conversation” to ensue about it.

Wikis make it easy for groups to come together around themes of common interest while social networks let people who otherwise would never meet one another gather in social groups. Forming communities is another ancient human endeavor.

The barriers to audio and video production and distribution have also crumbled; individuals are exercising their creativity uploading videos to video sharing sites and producing podcasts as yet more channels for personal expression.

As the technology enables more and more people to be heard—even if only by a few others—influence will increasingly transition to this venue, propelled by concurrent but unrelated shifts in trust. According to multiple studies, people increasingly believe that someone like them is the most credible source for some kinds of information.

The “social media doesn’t work” crowd echoes the sentiments of Andrew Keen, whose book “The Cult of the Amateur” rejects the ideas of community and conversation. In an interview, Keen said:

...the blogosphere has no formal editorial checks or balances and is thus structurally corrupt and corrupting. After reading my book, I doubt that any chief marketing officer of a large corporation will have the confidence to let go of their brand and allow any anonymous Internet user to corrupt it.

Keen clearly knows little about marketing or brands, since no company has ever owned its brand. They own their marks, but “brand” is defined as the way a consumer feels or what he or she thinks when he or she sees your mark or your product. Those perceptions are based upon personal experience. Think the pet food companies own the brands of their tainted product? Think again.

But aside from Keen’s ignorance of marketing’s glossary, his point is an exercise in denial. No CMO can prevent anonymous (not to mention clearly identified) Internet users from discussing their brands. In an era where more and more people are rejecting interruptive, push marketing (think DVR’s and the ability to fast-forward through commercials and commercial-free satellite radio as just two examples), CMOs who want their messages to get through had better consider participation and engagement.

CMOs don’t have to like this; it makes their efforts messy and complicated. But denying it does no good, either. To limit an organization’s communications to interruptive, one-way, top-down channels when influence is being wielded in social networks is, well, pointless.

Which is not to say that CMOs should abandon traditional marketing. People do still watch 30-second spots (I’m a big fan of the Geico ad campaign) and read newspapers (still the most trusted source of information about things that are important to people. What CMOs (and other communicators) need to understand is that social media—which is here to stay in one form or another—has been added to the mix and cannot be ignored, as much as Keen and the other pitchfork-wielding reactionaries wish it could. They also need to look at new forms of marketing that have nothing to do wish social media but focus more on brand experience.

So. Those who think newspapers are dead are wrong. Those who think social media is dead are equally wrong. And when I hear people flogging the “x is dead” theme, it’s the insistence that it’s an either-or world that ultimately cheeses me off. It has never been an “either-or” world. It’s an “and” world. Organizations that recognize this will perform better than those that do not.

Nothing changes everything.

04/04/07 | 9 Comments | Nothing changes everything



  • 1.I am a strong believer in this philosophy; however, things do evolve into new forms. For instance, I can't imagine the newspaper will look the same 20 years from now (when USA Today came on the scene it was color, I wonder what is next). That said, I do believe the telegram is dead, but wiring money sure isn't.

    Kami Huyse | April 2007

  • 2.I get your overall point Shel. Although I do think some stuff will actually "die".

    Jim Kukral | April 2007 | Cleveland, OH

  • 3.I'm definitely a passionate believer in the value that newspapers offer -- over any other media. If you want news, analysis, in-depth coverage, photography, etc., nothing beats newspapers.

    It's a shame, though, that many publishers are hanging to their old business models and, as Kami pointed, not evolving.

    I need a VC to give me a boat load of $$ so I can buy my local newspaper and turn it around!

    Mike Driehorst | April 2007 | Toledo, OH

  • 4.Definitely, Kami! In addition to everything else, we have to wonder what printing innovations will emerge in the next 10 years.

    Mike, that's why there will be fewer newspapers in 10 years (in addition to a smaller market). Those that adapt will survive. (Sounds like a biology lesson, doesn't it?)

    Jim, which media do you think will die? The only one I can recall in my lifetime is the telegraph. It doesn't happen often!

    Shel Holtz | April 2007 | Concord, CA

  • 5.Shel, I couldn't agree more! The fact that we see mainstream news organizations like McClatchy acquiring social media sites like Fresno Famous and Modesto Famous to complement their print and online offerings, along with the fact that most of Google and Yahoo's news (not to mention many bloggers' posts) actually originate from mainstream news organizations is evidence of this. The newspaper will not die. It will evolve into a multi-media news organization with more participation from those "formerly known as the audience" than ever before.

    Much of the dismal news about newspapers comes from unrealistic shareholder expectations, which have led to cuts in editorial staffs and therefore a reduction in the quality of the journalism - the product has been degraded at the same time that those who are vid about news are migrating online.
    But the reality is that most newspapers still enjoy a healthy profit margin of 15-20% - desirable by most industry standards. The purchase of the Tribune company by real estate czar Sam Zell will be interesting to watch. Privatizing Tribune Corp. will allow this newspaper organization to re-invent itself without the scrutiny and control of the market.

    My prediction: newspapers will not die and social media will not die. They will both evolve and continue to form a symbiotic relationship - and that is a good thing for journalism, the public and the democratic value of free speech that newspapers have historically represented.

    So, oh well, I agree with you, so I guess I'm out that 100 bucks! :-)

    Jen McClure | April 2007

  • 6.Shel:

    Spoken as a true communicator. Your added comment about evolution completes your post. That social media has always existed is also my mantra: as long as there are people, there is a need and desire to communicate.

    Hanging on to the past, as in your CMO example and Mike's comment, is common where we are very good... at what made us successful. To quote myself in a recent post based on The Dip (S. Godin): "But success is always fragile when it borrows from a formula."

    Always enjoy reading you and the conversation that ensues.

    Valeria Maltoni | April 2007

  • 7.Thanks for posting this, Shel. I agree that those who hang their hat on the demise of anything usually get it wrong. I like to say that "experience" is usually nothing more than being old enough to realize that the crisis of the moment has happened before, been worked through and life has carried on. Maybe it's a function of getting older that we are able to put some events in a larger context. But sometimes what is "new" is not always that much different from before. The tools have changed, but not the desires and urges behind how they're being used.

    Like you, I can remember many of those early social media tools, back when they weren't called that, but they were attempting to do many of the same things as today's wonderful technology. It's all about the content. Whether you read it in a newspaper, watch it on TV, pick up a book, open a browser, turn on your phone -- we're all looking for the same thing -- content. Our business will remain making sure that the content is right. It will get delivered in whatever form is most appropriate. And there will probably never be a final form. There will always be lots of choices.

    Dave Traynor | April 2007 | Victoria, BC

  • 8.Shel, I generally agree with your premise, and especially share your distaste for the "x is dead" or "y doesn't 'get' it" memes. Newspapers will change and adapt as radio has, and they will look a LOT different...and they won't all go to the free shopper distribution, so yes, you will be able to buy one.

    I would, however, bet you that if I shorted 100 shares of McClatchy stock and you bought 100 shares, I'd have a better return in 10 years.

    I think the CD pretty much has killed the cassette, which did kill the 8-track...and the mp3 is seriously eroding the CD. The deaths are slow and painful, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether there is a pulse there or not, but at some point enough people pull the plug that the medium dies.

    I found Bob Garfield's Chaos Scenario 2.0 interesting in this regard.

    Thanks for your always thought-provoking work, and best regards.

    Lee Aase | April 2007 | Rochester, MN

  • 9.I think there's some difficulty distinguishing media from mechanism, Lee. Eight-tracks and cassettes are both tapes. Nobody uses floppies any more, all those zeros and ones adhere to flash drives and CD's these days, but they're still just mechanisms for delivering the same bits. It's a bit like arguing that papyrus isn't used for writing any more, but the difference between paper and papyrus is negligible in terms of how it's used. I haven't found a good way to make this distinction yet, I'm afraid.

    I agree about the investment in newspapers, but as someone else noted, newspaper companies are actually producing pretty good returns as far as an overall business average is concerned. They are profitable -- just not as profitable as they once were (which was outrageously profitable comapred to business in general).

    Shel Holtz | April 2007 | Concord, CA

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