How disruptive are social media for publishers?

Social media is widely felt to be a disruptive technology – which is to say, a technology that alters a market in unexpected and not very predictable ways and one that has particular implications for publishing. However, a truthful answer to the question posed in our title if we take it to mean ‘how disruptive is social media to publishing now’, is probably very different depending on where in the industry you sit.

At the extreme end of things, the rise of blogging, Twitter et al is causing many newspaper publishers to question and in some cases modify their customer proposition. Meanwhile, trade publishers, who have a similarly direct exposure to the rapid upheavals in the consumer market driven in part by social media use, are more likely to complain about the latest outrage perpetrated by their new and unwelcome gatekeepers, Google/Apple/Amazon than to worry about social media per se. This is certainly disruption but feels more like a spat between big old companies and big new companies.

Other sectors seem not to be affected at all. Michael Clarke, in his post on Scholarly Kitchen last year, pointed out that scientific publishing had hardly been disrupted at all by the growth of the internet (let alone social media) and appears to believe that this will continue to be the case, due to the particular cultural conditions in the journals market and the academic institutions it serves. Social networking could provide add-ons to the existing situation; things that are nice to have, but which, while putting some pressure on established businesses to innovate, do not actually alter the existing market structure – a scenario of incremental rather than revolutionary change. Even Nature’s ongoing support for Open Access seems not to hold any immediate threat for the status quo.

So given the patchy nature of these effects, does it make sense to talk about social media having a disruptive effect on publishing in general? Are certain parts of publishing in some way inherently exempt from this sort of disruption?

Where Michael Clarke hits the nail on the head is in focusing on culture as the primary driver (or, in this case, inhibitor) of change. Because, arguably, what moves markets is not the thing that technology makes possible but the thing cultural change makes necessary.

It is worth, therefore, taking a slightly tech-sceptical view of the claims for social media’s disruptive power and looking at the trends underlying its enthusiastic popular uptake which have a real and enduring effect on the culture of information consumption – an effect powerful enough to bridge both domestic and professional spheres of operation and so operate across publishing generally rather than just in specific sectors.

Disruptive effects of social media

Ubiquity is often pointed to as prima facie evidence of social media’s potential to disrupt. Facebook reaches 57% of the U.S. population (eMarketer). 25% of all internet page views go to top ten social networks (Experian Hitwise December 09). Well, so what? Justin Beiber is also pretty much ubiquitous, but he can’t be said to have had any sort of disruptive effect on his particular industry sector. In order to truly disrupt a market, there needs to be more than a quantitative measure of critical mass: disruptors start changing things long before the tipping point comes.

So where’s the beef in the social media evangelists’ argument? Why is social media so special? And what can we say about it that can’t generally be said about the internet?

According to these criteria, the truly disruptive effects would be about transparency, and the emergence of a new and different trust paradigm.


The internet provides a two-way channel of communication between companies and customers, institutions and citizens. There’s nothing unique about this in the history of media: the telephone did the same – however the distinctive thing added by social media is the transparency of that exchange. It happens in public (or to be more accurate, in a series of connected public and semi-public spaces).

Customers could always talk to companies in the past, but companies had no compunction to report publicly on the content of those exchanges, so could be selective about what they chose to listen to. Without the mediation of consumer rights champions such as Which? Magazine, Ralph Nader or BBC’s Watchdog, customers had little chance of getting their voices heard where companies were determined to suppress or ignore their views.

When Dell’s poor customer service became the object of a concerted campaign by large numbers of aggrieved customers posting to internet forums, the company found itself engaged in an unmediated dialogue over which it had none of the previous controls. The story of how Dell turned this situation around became an early success story for social media. More recently, Gap tried to change its familiar blue-and-white logo and ran headlong into a firestorm of criticism via social media that resulted in the rebrand being ditched. Another success for people power.

It can’t be said that the vast mass of large consumer-facing organisations have become any more responsive to their customers as a result of these fairly isolated examples, but all at least pay lip-service to the idea and engage with social media to some degree, even if they only view it as a push channel for the time being.

There are two sides to this shift, which is essentially about loosening of control over access to media – one is about customers and companies, and the other, the public sector side of the story, is about government and citizens. It’s easy to overclaim about the influence of social media in whipping up and directing popular revolts, protests, riots and revolutions – from the streets of Tottenham to the Arab Spring – so let’s not go there. Two more salutary examples of how greater transparency in public discourse can have truly disruptive effects – both of which relate directly to publishing – are given by the cases of super-injunctions and Wikileaks.

These are extreme examples, perhaps, but they clearly show social media changing the landscape in unremediable ways, and give a lot of food for thought. They show truly disruptive forces at work, and say much about the changing culture of of public utterance. The power of speech/expression is at the very heart of publishing; and so there at least, are implications worth thinking about.

Change in the trust paradigm

The second disruptive force I want to single out – closely linked to the former in that they both involve an element of power-shift – will be familiar to readers of Clay Shirky et al and is, let’s be honest, fairly well trodden ground. The trusted information brand is under threat. Ideas about what constitutes authority in an information source seem not so simple as they were ten years ago, if only to judge by the willingness of many people to argue the toss about them. Consumers are tending to trust their peers more than their ‘betters’, and feel safer with recommendations by the largest possible number of people than with hand-picked suggestions by a small coterie of institutional insiders.

Geoff Bilder wrote memorably and incisively on this theme, and its particular relevance to scholarly publishing in his 2006 article In Google We Trust?: “The trust model of the Internet,” he said, “is almost antithetical to the trust model of academia”. Where scholarly trust models are global and vertical (i.e. hierarchical), those of the internet are local and horizontal (i.e. a relationship of equals). He describes the process by which internet trust models evolve within a networked community such as a forum. The example of eBay’s trust model is particularly interesting, based as it is on the transparency of every user’s transaction history on the site. This points up how these two disruptive forces work together: the internet’s ability to provide transparency is an important enabler in providing new trust models.

Since this article was written we have seen a rapid growth in social media and the evolution of many other site-specific trust models like the eBay example but also of the extension of those models beyond specific sites – e.g. the Facebook ‘Like’ button. We have also seen search itself become more social as Google has altered the way it assesses and represents relevance based on the realisation, prompted by Facebook’s drive to ubiquity, that the web is not a structure of linked documents, but a network of linked people.


As the web has become more and more about linking individuals together, trust has become a fundamental problem for it to solve. The white-hot necessity of solving these problems, in today’s highly competitive ‘attention economy’, has led to rapid and ongoing evolution. The models that do the job in the physical world – journal impact metrics, citations indexes, etc. have been subject to periodic modification, but are not evolving at anything like the same rate. Neither do they promise as much in terms of future development. As the web becomes smarter and online trust mechanisms more relevant and specific, it seems almost inevitable that at some point the digital challenger becomes more trustworthy than current systems for scholarly validity and filtration – which are already fairly widely felt to be flawed in certain respects.

Ultimately, no part of publishing will be entirely unaffected by these high-level trends of increased transparency and shifting trust. What varies from sector to sector is the pace of change, which institutional inertia can delay for a while, but never entirely bring to a halt.

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