I was a mix tape fanatic. Back when Maxell XL-II's were the mark of the audio connoisseur, I was going through a pack a week sharing great music with friends. I was told that my Mekons mix tape served as a de facto Greatest Hits for the bands on Hampshire College's music scene, in the early 90s.
Mix tapes allowed any music fan to become an archivist by stringing together old punk singles, or to be a producer by sequencing your own version of sprawling opuses like The Clash's Sandinista! or The Beatles' White Album, or to be the greatest radio station in town by serving up compilations of all the new music you had discovered in the last month. These tapes would circulate with a life of their own until you could find yourself (like I did) at a party on another college campus listening to a mix you had made months ago and which had travelled dupe-to-dupe "virally" as we say today, finally landing on a stranger's stereo.
In thinking about the ways in which social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and indeed the Huffington Post have changed our lives over the last decade, I keep returning to the halcyon days of the mix tape. Blank cassettes conferred a level of personal control and power over a medium that until then had been determined by big entertainment conglomerates and star artists. Similarly, social media has exploded the very nature of the relationship between consumer, broadcaster/promoter and brand/product online -- redefining the control paradigm across all media types.
Let's take news as a product (you can bet the cable networks and newspapers do). Until recently the dissemination of news, information and syndicated opinion was in the hands of a few elite organs of influence such as the New York Times and the Associated Press. With the advent of sites like Yahoo Finance in the late 90s this started to crack open -- message board pundits began to have a level of influence that could even extend to affecting a major corporation's share price.
Now, thanks to entities like the HuffPos, among others, citizen journalists are reporting and sharing information on a global scale, in effect creating their own version of "the news." Nico Pitney's phenomenal reporting on the Iranian election is a prime example of this. While he was able to work a wide array of sources, a great deal of his information was gleaned from people in Iran who were posting updates live, on sites like Twitter, becoming virtual stringers. Pitney's posts became a news version of a mix tape -- a more personal and often more enlightening version of a story that was also being covered by traditional media.
You are your own broadcaster. When people check out an article you post on Twitter, a funny video you post on Facebook, or a blog post on your trip to Aruba, they are tuning into your customized programming.
For brands and organizations that want to promote their work, facing millions of micro broadcasters can seem like a daunting change compared to buying time on three television networks or even print ads in national publications.
When people are able to control and choose the information they take in and customize the information they share online, they are very skeptical of anything that smacks of the hard sell or the pitch. Yet they are more than happy to weave the brands and even the ads that they like into what they share online.
Coca-Cola is a great example of this. When the company went to start a Facebook page they found, to their surprise, a fan page already existed with more than one million friends, created by two fans. Coke did the smart thing by co-opting the existing page and bringing the fans that started it into their marketing plan by letting them continue to run the show there.
A lot has changed in the last decade, and these revolutions in communications may pale in comparison to the political and social upheavals that have occurred since the century began. Make no mistake though, the rise of personal branding and broadcasting will only accelerate over the next ten years and we can only begin to imagine what changes they will bring to the rest of our lives.
And to think it all started with mix tapes.