Monday, May 12, 2008

Social Media and a robust Digital Commons: Tensions and Opportunities

Over the last month, while conducting a job search in the social media marketing space, I've had the opportunity to meet some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the field ranging from Jeremiah Owyang to Rohit Bhargava. I attended the Web 2.0 conference. While there were no new "2.0" techno-breakthroughs, this was the year Corporate America showed up and seems to have accepted that the ball-game is changing.

One tension emerged and deserves our attention. This is the tension between marketeer's use of social media to converse in new ways with their consumers, ultimately, promoting their brands versus remix creators/producers' use of social media tools to promote a robust digital commons, possibly re-mixing these very brand images in creative, yet to the brand, possibly harmful ways. This issue again rose to the fore in the artist, Nadia Plesner's mashup of the Louis Vuitton's bag in a Darfur awareness campaign (Thanks to Jeremiah I was alterted to this).

The Internet itself was created in Silicon Valley as a result of four different networks, each with their own logic. There was the v.c. community, the egalitarian "Well" community, the developer/computer university/government-funded science inventors and start-up entrepreneurs. It is important to remember that conflicting logics constitute the core of the Internet.

What is interesting is that there are also four levels, which provide a framework to analyze this tension between the consumer's ability to exploit the internet in its full distributive, remix potential and marketers openness to engaging with these same consumers. The first level attempts to enclose the Internet in a proprietary, closed network (we see this is Comcast's failed attempt to monitor traffic). The second level allows some enclosures and some freedom (we see this most often, in Vuitton's suit, in YouTube's suit while Viacom wants the free Internet distribution for their Comedy Central content, etc). The third level is found in the open-source world of Creative Commons or Linux, collaborative development. The fourth level would include P2P technology with new copyright regime, which would allow individuals like Nadia to mash-up content without fear of "take-downs."

These pieces create natural tensions with one another, going back to the co-existence of "The Well" egalitarian communities with the early Silicon Valley venture capital sector. As social media marketeers, we should realize that we are in a transitional period and these encounters will only increase. As John Bell offered in response to Jeremiah's "What should the CMO-do" question, these tensions create opportunities for new conversation between brands and a variety of consumers. As social media marketeers AND democratic "practitioners", we should look forward to these new conversations, encourage a robust digital commons, realize that groundswells have a force of their own and accept that if corporate marketeers want to embrace social media tools (as they should), it should be done in a way that does not restrict most democratic, creative potential inherent in these new forms of communication. If that means corporation's risk having their brands challenged, then it is a fair price. Soon, the smart corporations will also realize opportunities found in such encounters.

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