My column last week looked at a different view of how content is spread online. There are lots of studies and books about this, but I decided to share what motivates me to read and give my attention on a personal level. When I wrote this, I didn’t think it was a good column but oddly it struck a chord with a bunch of folks interested in content marketing.
Throughout high school and college, I took a heavy dose of political science and history classes. As a result, those teachers and professors stressed the importance of investigating primary source documents and analyzing them on their own merits versus secondary sources (like textbooks, for instance), even though we were all issued textbooks, essays by subject matter experts, and a range of other interpretations. Eventually as college ended, the courses focused more on the primary source and our own interpretation of it.
Fast forward to today. At least in the world of startup technology news, which moves too fast to be captured by textbooks or print-versions of magazines, primary sources remain important, but social sources — at least for me — trump all. Of course, in early-stage, private companies, obtaining primary sources is difficult. In my world of tech news, like many, Twitter is my main source of information and how I surf the web. Specifically on Twitter, however, I do not follow any “news sources” directly. There is too much information out there. As a result, I try to follow people who’ve I’ve grown to trust who read and share articles or random blog posts.
In order for me to read something, I need a social signal to trigger and capture my attention. “Who” shares it with me matters. The “source” matters still, just not as much. And, in some cases, the source online can be propped up by a brand and hold power in its distribution. Real estate to create content online is infinite. There is no barrier to entry to create information, to build an audience, to generate page views, and to peg those against ads. Therefore, at least in my small world of online tech news, social sources reign supreme.
I’m guessing many of you reading this may feel the same way. The social signal from following a friend or trusted industry source motivates me to gain interest in a link, to read the story, or save for later. The most critical piece of information in that decision is not where the link originates from and resides, but rather who has shared this link. In a way, the tweet itself, as a unit of social currency, is more important than the source itself. One product which demonstrates the pervasiveness of this Flipboard. Yes, Flipboard has dedicated media channels for sources, but on their social feeds, the author of a piece of content is nearly greyed out so that the reader can focus on “who” shared the content with them over “who” created it.
The point of view I’m sharing obviously isn’t new or earth-shattering. The idea of “social news” has even collected dust. We all know it to be true. However, I believe this has big, long-term implications for online media brands. In my college history experience, book publishers spent time aligning with universities, professors, and other beacons in that world in order to make sure their materials were picked as sources. Fast-forward to today, those kind of tactics may not be as effective. Instead, media brands are forced to think critically about the quality of their loyal, core audience, because it is those individuals who will, as social sources, share and discuss the content, information, facts and myths with their own friends and audiences. This is where real, sustainable distribution lies. For media companies online, the social source trumps the primary source — it is the realization that who shares information online is oftentimes more important than what that information is. And for many media brands, that is a fundamentally — and at times scary — new reality.