Since 1952, The United Kingdom has made one hell of a deal about the Christmas Number One. The idea is simple: every week music its ranked by sales, and in the week building up to Christmas the country has a morbid fascination about which artist will dominate the holiday season, ultimately winning the Christmas Number One slot. Said artists have often been luminaries within the category of horribly plastic pop music, complete with misty soft-focus lensed videos, whitewashed teeth and carefully crafted hair. This week the tables were turned, demonstrating the sheer power of community.
From 2005 until 2008, winners of the X Factor, a popular talent show in England, similar to American Idol, have all taken the Christmas Number One crown. Arguably winners due to the incredible marketing and hype machine of which Simon Cowell is the poster-child, 2009 saw another X Factor winner slated as a possible Christmas Number One winner, amid groans from many music fans across the country.
Some members of the British public were getting a little peeved off with the Christmas Number One being over-taken by this X Factor marketing machine, so much so that they coordinated a Facebook campaign to unseat X Factor's Joe McElderry with the classic expletive-filled Rage Against The Machine song Killing In The Name. Not only was the campaign a challenge to the ruling pop patriarch, but it also sought to unify the voices a disgruntled music-loving community in the UK that traditionally had no means to get their message out. How could they possibly raise public awareness of their dissatisfaction when their opposition had a prime time television show to push and prime the public with their proposed Christmas Number One winner?
The Facebook campaign started and news outlets started picking up on it. On Sunday 20th December 2009 Rage Against The Machine were crowned winners, selling over 500,000 copies. "It's more about the spontaneous action taken by young people in the U.K. to topple this very sterile pop monopoly,” said Rage singer Zack de la Rocha. "When young people decide to take action they can make what's seemingly impossible, possible. We would like to congratulate Joe and Simon (Cowell) on the Number Two single". Simon Cowell, humbled in said apparent smack down, went on to offer the organizers of the campaign roles in his record label.
Of course, throughout the campaign, and particularly since the announcement of the winner, social media and Facebook has become the subject of extensive assessment and punditry. Some have hailed Facebook campaigns such as this as an example of how social media services can be used to build awareness, protest and otherwise...well...rage against the machine (pun intended). Social media dorks have dived onto the band wagon parallelizing the discussion across many fronts, finding endless opportunities and reasons why social media is changing how humans tick.
While I am hugely encouraged by the story of this campaign, and while it absolutely massages my communitizing a community tendencies, I think it is important that we don't get too carried away with all the social media hype. Social media is a powerful tool, but it is important to remember it is indeed a tool.
What social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter have enabled people to do, and this campaign is a great example of this, is to bring together a collection of disparate voices together into a unified chorus, and provide a simple means for others to join the chorus. The true value of social media is in uniting the many, but it fundamentally requires existing opinions to be able to thrive. In the example of the Christmas Number One Facebook campaign, what ultimately resulted in it's success was the fact that the campaign really resonated with those who were sick and tired of grinning X Factor idiots fueled by marketing hype taking the Christmas Number One slot. Social media merely united those voices, generating a movement which in turn ultimately raised the profile and awareness of the campaign to the point where most people who shared that view had the opportunity to contribute to it.
The reason why I think it is important to put this in perspective is that it worries me that with all the excitement surrounding social media, that expectations can be misaligned, and this could result in costly mis-steps. It worries me a little that companies, groups and organizations think that if you understand how to operate the tool, be it Facebook/Twitter or other facilities, that huge interest will be generated in your product, mission or service. The misconception is that if we simply understand the tool, we can conjure up excitement and interest that otherwise did not exist. This is untrue: social media absolutely exhibits the opportunity to unlock the doors to people who would find your offering interesting, but social media will never help generate interest in areas that are simply not interesting and lack supportive opinions. Social media is a great means of connecting the dots, but has limited success in creating entirely new dots: for that you need to develop materials, outreach campaigns, collaborative infrastructure and other traditional and more invested methods of community building.
If we have a firm understanding of the opportunities and limitations of these tools, we have an incredible opportunity to build growth and awareness in our areas of interest, and to also unite together, just as the organizers of the Christmas Number One campaign did. The key is in investing in understanding these elements so that the result of our investment is a win and not a loss. Go forth and prosper, community friends!