Media products like Facebook's Graph Search are as adaptive, iterative and crowd-sourced as medieval media.

Social media more like medieval than mass media: Example

In a way, social media’s circling us back to medieval times, when media “products” were never really finished – they were crowd-sourced, adaptive, and usually shared by their developers (minstrels and storytellers) in public spaces, from castles to villages. The makeup and mood of the crowd had a lot of impact on the content of the story and how it would unfold.

Social media products are just as adaptive and crowd-sourced – only digital now, so the crowd and the village can be local or global. Take Facebook for example. The site as a whole, as well as the “products” in it, seem like they’re never finished, right? The site’s new search tool, Graph Search, is a great example, and a New York Times article about it shows how iterative and interactive social media products are and why they have to be. The search tool launched to a relative handful of users last January but only last week was rolled out to “several hundred million” Americans and users who speak American English.

“The development team has been observing and listening to millions of testers and making improvements,” the Times reports, and the search tool itself “has struggled to understand how people actually use language” while its engineers tweaked the algorithms to factor in “the many ways that people express interest in a topic.” And probably for some of the next 600-700 million users who’ll see Graph’s searchbox at the top of their pages it’ll still be a work in progress. For American users now “its recognition of synonyms and related topics is spotty. It cannot yet find information in status updates, a top request from users. It does not yet incorporate information from third-party apps like Yelp or Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. And the new search tool is not available on Facebook’s mobile apps, which are increasingly the way that people use the service,” according to the Times. It’s a hard-working social-media product, certainly, Facebook’s 1.1 billion users having posted 3.3 million new updates, photos, comments and other digital items every minute in May, the company told the Times.

Related links

  • “Stories were living, dynamic things in the Middle Ages, adapted, abridged, and expanded to fit occasions, audiences, tastes of the time, and the preferences of the storyteller,” writes author, blogger and medieval-history PhD student Jennifer Lynn Jordan at And, as in those times, today’s media products as well as content are more like living things than finished products that can be packaged and put on shelves.
  • Back in 2008, a wonderful article about Twitter by Clive Thompson in the New York Times Magazine, reinforced a theory I have that, in many ways, social media are helping to reverse the long postwar trend of increased isolation, as small towns got swallowed up by suburbs. Social media’s collapsing distance and separation in a non-geographical way. Here’s where tweets come in: “A (digital) return to village life.”
  • “6-year-old self-taught pre-readers and tablet users in Ethiopia”
  • “Growing signs social media are good for us”

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