All media are social, but some are more social than others

Have you ever belonged to a book club? Gathered in the break room at work to talk about last night’s episode of Lost or American Idol? Gone to a movie with friends and discussed it over drinks afterward?

If you have, congratulations, you’re a part of something called participant culture. It’s not a new thing — the impulse to enhance entertainment with social commentary, or to enhance bonds between friends and neighbors with shared enjoyment of entertainment, has existed throughout history and across cultures. New technologies just introduce new ways for people to follow their social instinct to share things they like with their friends and families.

Back when William Shakespeare’s plays were the talk of the town in Elizabethan London, people of all social classes would go to the theater to show off their outfits, be seen in the best seats they could afford (or stand on the ground if they couldn’t), chat with their friends, and even yell comments and criticism at the actors. The plays themselves often included jokes and commentary about people in the audience, both ad-libbed by the actors and written in by Shakespeare himself — and of course the audience would call right back to let everyone know how they felt about those jabs. Talk about a social media experience! Just imagine what the Bard could have done with a smartphone and a Twitter feed.

Plenty of other cultures have historically incorporated social life with the arts, as well. Competitive poetry recitals, group storytelling, and call-and-response singing are all age-old forms of social media. When TV and movies started to overtake reading as forms of entertainment, some cultural critics fretted that these media would be unhealthy because they represent a more “passive” form of consumption. They needn’t have worried; the development of new media has, if anything, demonstrated that people can make absolutely anything interactive and social instead of passive and one-way. Even TV commercials, often described in the ultimate in passive media, are now interactive, as viewers create parodies on YouTube, send text-message responses to earn discounts and rewards, and, in the case of a recent StateFarm Insurance ad campaign, even vote on Facebook to determine which ad will be aired on TV. The powerful impulse to participate in culture means that no cultural product is completely passive; everything can be remixed, re-interpreted, shared and spun and commented on.

What the new wave of social media means is that not only can anyone take part in this tradition — anyone can be the person to start the conversation. By encouraging your readers, visitors, and customers to participate, you’re validating strong cultural instincts that they already have, inviting them to share in a ritual of friendship with you. Remember that every time you compose a tweet, facebook status, or blog post, your goal is to encourage engagement, response and sharing. You’re not just talking at people, you’re inviting them to interact with you.

Try ending a blog post with a question, asking readers for their input. Instead of just posting a photo that you like on facebook, include an invitation for fans to add their favorite photos to your wall. Post “video responses” on Youtube, and call for responses to your own videos, too. By creating a conversation, you’re letting people have a personal, friendly relationship with you, encouraging them to tell their friends about you and what you do. If a visitor feels like they’re really involved in an interaction, it gives them a story about themselves to tell: “this is the cool thing I said to this blogger, and here’s how she responded” rather than “oh, I read this blog post last week,” which is a story that doesn’t really involve them and is therefore less interesting to tell.

Think about your favorite experiences of participating in culture. For instance, when I was thirteen or so, I wrote a letter to my favorite author asking for her advice on becoming a writer myself. She wrote me back a lovely letter encouraging me to keep practicing every day and to read a wide variety of books, and thanking me very nicely for my compliments on her work. A dozen years later, I still remember that interaction and how it made me feel, like I was really somebody in the eyes of a person I greatly admired. Has a cultural interaction ever made you feel like that?

Well, that’s what you’re shooting for in your interactions with your audience. Whenever you have the opportunity, think of how you can let them know that you see them as real people, not just numbers on a hit counter or words on a screen. Let them know that their interaction is an important part of what you do. That’s not just some recent trend or buzzword; it’s been a major force in world cultures since the first group of people sat down around a campfire to tell stories. Participant culture is what gives your words or images the power to transform into something bigger.

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