I was one of five folks on a panel at Digital Hollywood in Santa Monica this week (4 May). The panel was titled “Advertising Next” and was about emerging platforms/new media, including social media and so on. The audience was the usual 150 or so digital marketing types. They were respectful and attentive. No food throwing at all.
Needless to say, the talk was dominated by the usual mumbles (mine included) about “brands joining the conversation” and “brands being publishers” and all that. In the midst of this, Chad Stoller, who directs emerging platforms strategy for Omnicom’s Organic, quoted the oft-cited observation of the blogger and sci fi writer Cory Doctorow: “Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.”
I hadn’t heard the quote before (actually, had never heard of Cory Doctorow), so I thought about it for a minute or two before deciding that I probably agreed with it in some sense but didn’t trust or like the use of the word “just.” What came to my mind was James Agee’s ominous footnote to the epigraph of his book Let Us Now Praise Men. The epigraph is Marx’s exhortation, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains and a world to win.” Agee added in his footnote, “These words are quoted here to mislead those who will be misled by them.”
If you pay too much attention to the dismissive word “just” in the Doctorow quote, you may be misled into believing that content is relatively unimportant. But if you parse Doctorow’s sentence properly and strictly, you understand that without a basis of content, there is no conversation at all. And that, of course, is the case. (We can quibble later about when conversation itself is and isn’t content.)
Consider an example: The mainstream blogosphere is conversation. The metacontent on which all that talk is based is the news. Most news gets reported by a vanishingly small group of people, largely professionals in the employ of a handful of organizations. The vast majority of the content underlying much of the online conversation in the blogosphere is produced by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and, to a far lesser extent, CNN and the network news departments. If they all went dark tomorrow, there’d be very little to talk about. Except, of course, the sudden lack of news.
Conversation, in the end, may or may not be king. Either way, it’s just what happens when people are exposed to interesting content.