The Need for the 4Cs Social Media Framework
Over the last year, I have had to explain how social media works to diplomats, defense officials, and academics and students focused on fields as diverse as international affairs, management and sociology.
I have found that first-timer find social media confusing because of two reasons.
The first reason is the excessive focus on specific social media tools. Many first-timers are introduced to social media via specific tools. Many ‘social media experts’ who are practitioners rather than thinkers also focus on specific tools. Since social media encompasses many different types of tools, and each tool has specific characteristics and a steep learning curve, a toolkit approach can quickly become overwhelming. Blogging (WordPress), microblogging (Twitter), video-sharing (YouTube), photo-sharing (Flickr), podcasting (Blog Talk Radio), mapping (Google Maps), social networking (Facebook), social voting (Digg), social bookmarking (Delicious), lifestreaming (Friendfeed), wikis (Wikipedia), and virtual worlds (Second Life) are all quite different from each other and new and hybrid tools are being introduced almost everyday. Mastering each tool individually seems like a lot of work and a lot of people give up even before they begin.
The second reason is a clear definition of what social media is, even within the social media community. Different thinkers and practitioners use different terms to describe similar tools and practices. Terms like social media, digital media, new media, citizen media, participatory media, peer-to-peer media, social web, participatory web, peer-to-peer web, read write web, social computing, social software, web 2.0, and even crowdsourcing and wikinomics can mean similar or slightly different things depending upon who is using it. Journalists, marketers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, software vendors and academics approach the space from their own perspectives and have their own preferred terms. Used precisely, these terms can mean very different things. However, very few people use these terms precisely and almost nobody agrees on the exact definition of these terms.
The 4Cs Social Media Framework
My own approach to social media is both tool-agnostic and terminology-agnostic. So, I use the term social media to encompass all the tools and all the practices that are described by the terms I mentioned above.
Instead of getting distracted by the tools and the terminologies, I focus on the four underlying themes in social media, the 4Cs of social media: Content, Collaboration, Community and Collective Intelligence. Taken together, these four themes constitute the value system of social media. I believe that the tools are transient, the buzzwords will change, but the value system embedded in these 4Cs is here to stay. So, let's look at these 4Cs in some detail.
The First C: Content
The first C, Content, refers to the idea that social media tools allow everyone to become a creator, by making the publishing and distribution of multimedia content both free and easy, even for amateurs.
User generated content, and the hope of monetizing it through advertising, is at the core of the business model of almost all social media platforms. User generated content is also at the core of citizen journalism, the notion that amateur users can perform journalist-like functions (accidentally or otherwise) by reporting and commenting on news. Citizen journalists have repeatedly emerged as critical in crisis reporting and several citizen journalist platforms have emerged to harness their potential to report hyper-local news.
However, just because everyone can become a creator doesn't mean that everyone does. Most users prefer to consume user generated content, by reading blog, watching videos, or browsing through photos. Some user curate user generated content, by tagging it on social bookmarking websites, voting for it on social voting websites, commenting on it, or linking to it. Researcher have found support for the 1:9:90 rule in many different contexts. The 1:9:90 rule says that 90% of all users are consumers, 9% of all users are curators and only 1% of the users are creators.
The Second C: Collaboration
The second C, Collaboration, refers to the idea that social media facilitates the aggregation of small individual actions into meaningful collective results.
Collaboration can happen at three levels: conversation, co-creation and collective action.
As consumers and curators engage with compelling content, the content becomes the center of conversations. Conversations create buzz, which is how ideas tip, become viral. Many social media practitioners who are from a marketing or public relations background are focused on creating conversations.
However, some of us recognize that conversations are a mere stepping stone for co-creation. In co-creation, the value lies as much in the curated aggregate as in the individual contributions. Wikis are a perfect example of co-creation. Open group blogs, photo pools, video collages and similar projects are also good examples of co-creation.
Collective action goes one step further and uses online engagement to initiate meaningful action. Collective action can take the form of signing online petitions, fundraising, tele-calling, or organizing an offline protest or event.
Even though conversations, co-creation and collective action are different forms of collaboration, the difficulty in collaborating increases dramatically as we move from conversations to co-creation to collective action. The key is to start with a big task, break it down into individual actions (modularity) that are really small (granularity), and then put them together into a whole without losing value (aggregating mechanism). It is also important to bridge online conversations into mainstream media buzz and online engagement into offline action.
The Third C: Community
The third C, Community, refers to the idea that social media facilitates sustained collaboration around a shared idea, over time and often across space.
The notion of a community is really tricky because every web page is a latent community, waiting to be activated. A vibrant community has size and strength, and is built around a meaningful social object.
Most people understand that a community that has a large number of members (size) who have strong relationships and frequent interactions with each other (strength) is better than a community which doesn't. However, a community is more than the sum total of its members and their relationships.
People don't build relationships with each other in a vacuum. A vibrant community is built around a social object that is meaningful for its members. The social object can be a person, a place, a thing or an idea. The Netroots community is built around progressive politics in America. The My Barack Obama community was built around Barack Obama's presidential campaign. The Obama Girl community was built around a series of videos Amber Lee Ettinger made to support Obama's campaign. Sometimes, choosing the right social object can be crucial for building a vibrant community. HP can choose to build a community around printers, printing, or corporate careers, all of which will have very different characteristics.
The Fourth C: Collective Intelligence
The fourth C, Collective Intelligence, refers to the idea that the social web enables us to not only aggregate individual actions, but also run sophisticated algorithms on them and extract meaning from them.
Collective intelligence can be based on both implicit and explicit actions and often takes the form of reputation and recommendation systems. Google extracts the pagerank, a measure of how important a page is, from our (implicit) linking and clicking behavior. Amazon and Netflix are able to offer us recommendations based on our (implicit) browsing, (implicit) buying and (explicit) rating behavior and comparing it to the behavior of other people like us. eBay and Amazon assign ratings to sellers and reviewers respectively, based on whether other members in the community had a good experience with them. On the day of the 2008 US elections, the Obama campaign was able to assign trimmed down telecalling lists to volunteers by ticking off the names of the people who had already voted.
The great thing about collective intelligence is that it becomes easier to extract meaning from a community as the size and strength of the community grow. If the collective intelligence is then shared back with the community, the members find more value in the community, and the community grows even more, leading to a virtuous cycle.
The4Cs Social Media Framework in Summary
So, the 4Cs form a hierarchy of what is possible with social media. As we move from Content to Collaboration to Community to Collective Intelligence, it becomes increasingly difficult to both observe these layers and activate them. Also each layer is often, but not always, a pre-requisite for the next layer. Compelling content is a pre-requisite for meaningful collaboration, which is a pre-requisite for a vibrant community, which, in turn, is a pre-requisite for collective intelligence.
Although I designed the 4Cs framework to explain how I see social media, I have also found it to be a useful tools to evaluate specific social media initiatives. The best social media initiatives leverage all these four layers, but I have seen that most initiatives get stuck between the Collaboration and Community layers. Examples of social media initiatives that leverage the Community or Collective Intelligence layers are few and far between. It's important to note, however, that each layer is valuable in itself, and it's OK to design an initiative to only exploit the Content or Collaboration layers.
The 4Cs Social Media Framework Applied to Digital Activism
Let me explain what I just said my applying the 4Cs framework to digital activism initiatives.
Many digital activism initiatives like Social Documentary and Witness primarily focus on using social media tools to create and share compelling multimedia Content. Some of this Content generates Conversations and becomes viral and some of it might even lead to Collective Action. However, the focus is on Content.
Other initiatives, like Vote Report India or the Pink Chaddi Campaign, start off with a strong focus on Collaboration around a specific event. In its first iteration, Vote Report India leveraged Co-creation by creating a platform for collectively tracking irregularities in the 2009 Indian elections. The Pink Chaddi Campaign leveraged Collective Action by asking its supporters to send pink panties to the Sri Ram Sena as Valentine's Day gifts. As these campaigns become successful, they try to move to the next Community level, but don't always succeed in building a long-term community.
Very few digital activism initiatives are able to leverage the Community or Collective Intelligence layers. The Netroots community in the US, especially Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo and MoveOn.org, have been able to build a strong Community around progressive politics in the US. My Barack Obama leverage some aspects of Collective Intelligence during the 2008 presidential campaign.
What About You?
If you are a social media practitioner or a digital activist focused on the Content and Collaboration layers, I would urge you to think about how you can move to the Community layer. If you already run a vibrant community, I would urge you to think about introducing reputation and recommendation systems in it and leverage the Collective Intelligence layer.
If you are designing a new social media initiative, I would urge you to use the 4Cs Framework in the design and strategy phase itself. Perhaps, in phase one, you would want to start with a campaign built around Content and focused on Collaboration, with elements of co-creation and/ or collective action. You would do well to plan for a phase two which is focused on Community, with a dash of Collective Intelligence built in. The question you want to ask yourself, then, is: how can I design a Collaboration based campaign so that it can be used to build a long-term Community?
If you are a journalist, analyst or academic in the business of understanding social media initiatives, you'll find the 4Cs Framework really useful. What are the boundary conditions needed to succeed at each layer? What are the boundary conditions needed to move from Content to Collaboration, from Collaboration to Community, and from Community to Collective Intelligence? Can you think of other digital activism or social media initiatives that leverage the Community or Collective Intelligence layers?
Do share your thoughts.
Cross-posted at Gauravonomics, my blog on social media and social change.