Years ago, a little girl asked the editor of the New York Sun an important question. Virginia wrote:
DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
The question and its answer is well known. It is one that is repeated year after year as children rightfully question what has been presented to them as the truth.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
I've been using social media since 1992 (1200 baud modem for the win!). Although I only started this blog in 2008, going online in search of connections both meaningful and superficial, deep and entertaining, supporting and challenging, is something I've been doing for a long time. In technology years, I guess I've been using and questioning social media for as long as the Virginias of the world have been questioning Santa Claus.
So when my friend Bon Stewart wrote a post called yes, Virgina there is an agenda about the state of social media today and how it has changed over the past few years, it got me thinking. It made me ask how Virginia and her Santa Claus may be different from the one that so many children know today. I wonder what Santa Claus brought to children back in Virginia's day. Did he bring larger than life doll houses, mega Lego sets, Playstations and trampolines? Or did he bring sugar plums and maybe a simple doll or wooden car? In short, I wonder whether the magic of Santa Claus used to outweigh the materialism and whether now the materialism outweighs the magic.
On the magic of social media, Bon wrote:
social media did some pretty crazy things for those of us out there participating. it flattened hierarchies by enabling and encouraging person-to-person connection and actual engagement. it foregrounded individual voices and relationships. and it represented a new way of relating to what had always been untouchable sacred cows: institutions, corporations. it gave us – often more theoretically than in everyday encounters – an agency we had not previously tended to consider possible.
But then at some point, that agency (the magic of social media) started coming with presents. When the Santa Claus of the blogging world checked his list and checked it twice, the kids who were on the "nice" list got presents. They were rewarded by businesses who wanted to put ads in their sidebar, to send them free stuff to be reviewed, to whisk them away on trips, and have them write on their corporate blogs. And then what happened? Those kids who were on the "nice" list became ambassadors and role models and peer influencers, showing the other kids that if they could just play nicely, that Santa would bring them presents too. It even attracted kids who had never believed in Santa Claus or anything like it because, hey, if there is something material to be gained, they could be convinced to be believers.
Ah yes, Bon said:
forget agency and voices and relationships. if you are using your network solely to sell the message of a corporate entity, what you are doing is NOT social media, no matter your platform. what you’re doing is at best a marketing job, and more likely something akin to Amway.
Has blogging, like Santa Claus, become nothing more than making a list of material desires and being as good as you need to be to ensure those desires are fulfilled come Christmas morning?
Unlike Virginia's Santa Claus who probably wanted little children to be seen and not heard, the Santa Claus of the blogging world wants us to be loud. Our Santa Claus likes eyeballs, page views, trackbacks and comments. In The Girl Who Was Too Cool for Birth Control, AV Flox wrote:
There is another aspect of digital properties that has recently come under fire, and that is the high incidence of opinion pieces on popular blog networks that are more about link-baiting than they are about offering a genuine opposing view of an issue.
Ah, yes. That is the phenomenon that Meredith Fein Lichtenberg, in her article called Mom on Mom, so aptly named SCANDAL-CLICK-BONANZA. Or, to quote her phrase in full:
And if you are inclined to be provocative online because you get paid only if you create a Scandal-Click-Bonanza, who's really being played?
AV Flox, using the example of a recent "unforgivably reckless" opinion piece on birth control, went on to talk about the responsibility of actors in the social media space. Her piece included a couple of key points:
1) There is a certain level of responsibility that comes with giving a platform to dissenting opinions that could harm others.
2) When you choose page views over self-respect, a fast erosion of credibility is inevitable.
What is important to remember, however, in the quest for page views, is that Santa Claus doesn't like it when you make the scandal about him. He may be less likely to shower you with nice gifts if you have bad things to say about those gifts. So bloggers trying to get on Santa Claus' "good" list with eyeballs, page views, trackbacks and comments, need to do so in a way that doesn't bite the hand that feeds them.
What does that leave those bloggers with? If they are trying to create SCANDAL-CLICK-BONANZA, but can't make the scandal about the brands that are flanking the article on all four sides, what can they do? Unfortunately, what is often left is that "unforgivable recklessness" that was mentioned previously. Insult someone or better yet, entire groups of people. State your opinion in an inflammatory way. Create content that is unnecessarily divisive, instead of content that creates community and connections. Dare people to judge you.
My Magic Machine
My blog is monetized. You see that through the ads in my sidebar and through the page telling potential advertisers of the opportunity to connect with my readers. But, I've been careful to monetize my blog in a way that preserves the magic and helps me stay on the "nice" list.
I'm in blogging for the magic. I'm here for the flattened hierarchies, the engagement, the ability to connect and to influence. I'm here to make a difference in the lives of individuals, to change society for the better, and for personal fulfillment. I won't lie and tell you that the page views don't matter. They do. When you are trying to help people, to change people's minds or actions, or to engage others in walking down a common path, numbers do matter.
Page views are a means to an end. For some people, page views are simply a means to MONEY. They are only in the connection game as long as it leads to presents. Bon has seen this and I've seen this and it is as concerning to me as the children for whom Christmas is only about the presents (oy, glass house here, as this is a battle I feel I am yet not winning with my kids). To me, however, page views are not simply a means to money. They are a means to meeting my own blogging goals, which are all about the ways that blogging can change the world. Page views are one measure of success. They tell me, to some extent, how many people I've reached or touched (along with other measures of course, like connections and achieving actual change).
As a side product, page views (and all the other things they represent -- like an engaged audience, good search ranking, and so on) are also a means to earning money with my blog. When I earn money with my blog, it allows me to spend less time on other income producing activities that may not always be as personally fulfilling. It allows me to spend more time on my blog in search of the magic.
But, and this is a big but, in order to preserve the magic, I need to work with brands that are closely aligned with my values. By not accepting money from companies whose values are not aligned with mine, I don't ever feel like I have a muzzle on or that I cannot speak out in support of the things that I think are true. While some people think that refusing certain types of ads is censorship, for me accepting certain types of ads would feel like censorship because I do not like to bite the hand that feeds me. As a side benefit, choosing to work with brands whose values are aligned with mine also helps me stay true to my values. I am less likely to go off course and do something unseemly if I think that it will tarnish or disappoint the people and organizations whose respect and support I value so much.
This blog, and my presence in social media overall, feels like my own personal magic machine. I have a platform, where I can connect and influence, which gets me the page views needed to be on Santa's "nice" list (...or at least the nice list of the Santa I believe in), which ultimately gives me even more opportunity to connect and influence. That, is magic. That is what social media is about for me.
...he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
But what makes our hearts glad? Is it the magic or the presents?
Image credit: rafeejewell on flickr