Toronto. Blissdom Canada, year 2.

i had fun. saw some of my favourite people, had interesting conversations, danced, got kissed by a yam puppet, and sat on a panel with Nora Young of CBC Radio’s Spark. i can die happy.

i also realized that social media is slipping through our fingers.

tonight, the night after the morning after the morning after, what i miss is the people. the sitting up late, perched on staircases or outside in the blue air, talking. connecting. cementing tentative bonds of recognition.

that’s what conferences are for: the connecting.

i like to think that’s what social media is for, too. (i mean, not ONLY that. i haven’t been asleep since 2006. i like the word brand, may gawd strike me down).

but after Blissdom this year, for the first time, i have real misgivings about the future of social media.

i think we mighta sold the farm, Virginia. and we didn’t even notice.
***

once upon a time, long long ago before anyone had invented the term SEO, there were days when social media was mostly about peers. finding ’em. creating relationships.

online platforms were a means of finding others and their ideas, of network-building, and sharing. the connections grew rhizomatically, like weeds, node threading to node without formal goal or overarching strategy. it was a bit of a jungle.

there were always metrics: ways to judge one’s Return On Investment for the time put in. eyeballs on one’s work always mattered, and some identities were bigger than others. so were their networks, and their reputations.

(this world was not a monolith by any means, Virginia: different communities and corners of what was then mostly called “the blogosphere” had their own etiquette, their own implicit rules around reciprocality.)

but it was mostly a world of what’s called produsage: the people who created stuff and shared it were also the consumers of other people’s stuff. that’s what the connections served.

it was more or less a peer-to-peer environment. connections were about interest, even when the people forging the relationship had platforms of different scale. yes, there was cultivation of fame for its own sake, and fawning over major profiles: all the things that metrics encourage. there were ugly things there, too, and inane things, and lots that probably made no difference to the state of the world in general. it was very human. but for all its flaws, it was full of potential.

it was a network model of being in the world, rather than a top-down organizational model. it was emergent rather than planned, and distributed rather than owned by any one entity.

this was, of course, probably rather bewildering to the entities used to owning things.

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.

an emergent model, of course, doesn’t provide very good salaries. this is where we get back to Blissdom, Virginia.

since about 2008, there’s been a strong push in social media to monetize, to leverage the platforms and networks users build for a share of advertising and sponsorship dollars. for many, especially for women, this has been an incredible opportunity to work outside the traditional institutional structures of 9-5, as freelancers and entrepreneurs. and especially for women whose social media content relates to domesticity, there’s been an incredible response from traditional mainstream brands with a vested interest in the domestic market.

just as social media was making the personal branded, it made brands personal. they were shifting their broadcast model strategies, we heard, and connecting, and changing.

great. financial opportunity AND agency to forge new paths. i gave a nod of thanks to the car company that drove me around gratis, and to the razor company – was it razors? or orange juice? – for the free manicure.

then i noticed that there seemed to be a whole swath of conversation that had nothing to do with what i do, both from brands and other attendees.

i was okay with that, at first. not everybody wants to be a personal blogger, or – mercy – an academic one. i like money. i can’t fault anyone for wanting to make some.

but it appeared that for a lot of people at the conference, the PURPOSE of social media is to enable individuals to connect with brands. for the purpose of furthering the brands themselves. end story. a path into the machine.

the first – and maybe second – generation of bloggers and social media personalities who worked to forge partnerships with brands and as entrepreneurs tended to do so from a base in peer-to-peer relationships. connections. voices.

some have had incredible business savvy and success, but most have been inclined to promote and preserve some of the values of both independence – from traditional power structures – and interdependence – on each other – that are hallmarks of social media. and traditional power structures have had to treat them accordingly.

there’s a shift occurring, a sea change in discourse. i heard it in the lunch lineups, over cocktail trays, in the tense conversation after the film screening. a significant proportion of conference attendees spoke about their social media goals entirely in terms of connecting with brands. not even primarily as brands themselves – in a sort of peer-to-peer relationship – but as consumers of opportunity, looking to become part of the major institutional system of major media and corporations.

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.

i even heard it when i sat on the stage with Tessa Sproule, who is lovely and savvy and Director of Interactive Media at the CBC, but who largely appears to see social media as a way of engaging consumers with her brand.

this is not a two-way street. this is consolidation of power to the old familiar models, in which one can be employer or employed, but not really a whole lot else. the dream of a distributed, collaborative society of creator-consumers?

time to wake up, i think, my friends.

social media is, in too many fields, becoming simply a nice interactive tool by which the traditional corps and powers-that-be gain more eyeballs. they’re not so nervous, anymore. because increasingly people join social media NOT to connect but as a path to a piece of the pie: they’re there not to be public but to gain enough platform to be sponsored or spokespersons or stars, for the traditional monopolized industries.

what do we do about it?

i don’t think we take the pitchforks out. this isn’t about blaming or Othering the new generation. they want jobs. i’ve had jobs. that’s a glass house few of us can stand in.

but we need to ask ourselves what our role IS – and can be – in a social media environment becoming crowded with marketers, not creator-consumers.

we need to understand the potentiality of social media and what it offers us. for me, at least, that’s this space, and the theoryblog – rooms of my own. community. network resources via Twitter and G+ and even Facebook that interact and offer and share with me daily, on topics and perspectives that don’t have a market value.

that a cultural shift like social media has major forces aligned in their own interests against it probably shouldn’t be a surprise. maybe i’ve just been down too deep in the echo chamber to hear it coming. but i do think it’s important to start this conversation, among all of us who want to do more with our online spaces and voices and networks – all of which are very much an integrated part of our so-called REAL lives – than be part of a better bottom line for major brands.
***

what do you see as the future of social media? of blogging conferences? have we sold the farm?

give me hope, Virginia. connect. hold me.