National Public Radio (NPR) recently ran a feature on its web site called the “Real Economy Project” in which it solicited stories from the audience about how economic conditions were affecting people’s lives. The editors selected people to interview from among the respondents, and their stories were broadcast and podcast on the “Day to Day” segment nationwide. I didn’t hear them all, but what I did hear made the message clear: real people are suffering out there.
Whether you believe America is on the brink of another ‘30s-style Great Depression, or you quietly suspect a wave of manic exuberance could turn back the slide as quickly as it came (or, more likely, you’ll take the bell curve in the middle), you must recognize how the media’s growing use of filtered feedback from the audience has formed a trend amplifier that’s taken on a life of its own. Stories from people for whom the economy remains an ominous cloud on the horizon but have yet to miss a mortgage payment don’t make for good listening. They may provide some contrast to put the story in relief, but the story is clear, as told and retold by the audience to itself.
I’m not trying to say things are better than they seem. They rarely are. I’m trying to say that how they seem is an increasingly important determinant of how they are. Media has always played this feedback role, but only recently has its public input channel been opened so far and wide, its volume turned up so high, and its scope and scale been so profoundly global.
This is a spectacular vindication of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, who emphasized media’s role in “amplifying and accelerating existing processes.” For McLuhan, it was not the content of any message, but the pervasive effects of the media itself that were worth understanding. Many remember McLuhan’s famous line, “the medium is the message,” but few seem to get it. The key impact of social media has nothing to do with what people are saying: it’s the effect of the medium itself on the way the world works that we need to attend to.
The effect of media on our global economy is to accelerate and amplify trends. It does this by converting events into a simple, coherent narrative that everyone can follow. Does anyone really understand what caused this economic crisis? Apparently even Alan Greenspan doesn’t. According to McLuhan it doesn’t matter. It’s the way a phrase – say, “worst crisis since the Great Depression” – can instantly captivate the global village that we must grapple with.
So what, you say? This means that, even if you are carefully monitoring and analyzing social media, you may well be focusing your efforts on the wrong things. You may be focused too much on understanding the content of conversations (especially the subject and sentiment of messages), and not enough on understanding their velocity and resonance. We search for keywords that define the baseline of relevance – our brand, our competitors, our category – but how many are actively looking for fast-spreading stories in the places where they are germinating? And then, how many are defining their own roles in these stories, both through action and communication?
This is the difference between social CRM – an important discipline, to be sure, but one that focuses on responding tactically to specifics – and social media intelligence, a new discipline for the 21st century.
No one knows what will happen to the global economy in the coming months and years. But the ones who use technology and insight to spot and amplify the next high-velocity narrative will know first.