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27 May 2013

The New Information Process and Circles of Sharpness

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Until a couple of decades ago communications professionals –journalists, press offices or advertising and marketing agencies- were product dependent. The aim of communicators in their everyday work was none other than filling a predetermined format that made it possible to reach the audience in a standardized way that was repeated over time. We thought that our work was creative, but in reality it was more like an assembly line, where news, videos, ads, press releases or sales campaigns were produced between various links in the chain in an almost mechanical way.

The audience, made up of consumers of information products, had a vision of reality conditioned by a limited number of sources. It seemed a reliable view of what was happening in the world, but it was actually quite blurred, as it was limited to decoding the perceptions of one, two or, at most, three information sources, which were usually indirect. We were not aware; we thought it was an appropriate and valid system, until, in just about 15 years, everything blew up.

The technological tsunami that started in the mid 90’s and is still far from reaching the shore -if there is a shore- is passing over the communicator model of the twentieth century, which is on its last legs on Earth as with one click consumers of information products all become active users within the communication process.

In the midst of such a wave it is easy to get lost, especially when it is most probable that the shore does not exist and we will always have to live on the crest of a change that does not slow down. What we do know for sure is that the time has come to choose between being a product that moves at the mercy of the water or an active subject that tries to get somewhere, even somewhere in between, on the crest of the wave.

In order to survive in the new media environment, the first thing to do is analyze how we receive information, what the impacts are that shape our view of reality. As a result of social networks the flow of information that connects us to reality is much greater. That lets us know what surrounds us in more detail, starting with a large number of sources, in many cases direct, and improving that somewhat blurred view that we had of what was happening around us.

But make no mistake, we see the reality in much greater depth, but do not see it in full, we hardly open circles of sharpness on topics that interest us. It is us, when deciding who we follow, who we focus on, and we only do this on a handful of topics, because our attention span -which remains human- cannot handle any more.

This is a double challenge for communication professionals, being in the bad habit for centuries of vertical structures, but not so much for new audiences made up of users that easily adapt to the new environment for a simple reason: the Internet and social tools reproduce the same communication model in a large-scale that we use throughout life, that of the town square or the bar on the corner.

The first challenge for communicators lies in understanding how their audience ticks. It is not enough just listening to what happens in social networks; a deeper analysis is needed to identify areas of common interest on certain issues. We must take the place of users to find the right place in every conversation. Like many other things, machines help us do this, but it is not enough just to follow the criterion of a monitoring and analysis tool, these can be the basis for starting work decoding reality, but for the time being they do not replace us. We need to know the “circles of sharpness” of our audiences to become part of their reality, to participate in relevant conversations.

With the traditional information product, message senders were the ones who imposed their vision of reality, even splitting it into artificial sections linked to the format, as in the case of newspapers. Now the relationship is reversed and it is the users’ interests that rule. Readers are now the ones who define the categorization of reality, as through a simple search or choosing who is part of their timeline they directly decide what topics interest them, what their “sections” are, based on their own concerns.

The second challenge is to convert the increasingly outdated information products into processes. The story of reality has ceased to have a select group of authors. By fixing their interest on a particular topic, users do not look up two or three sources, they know the latest goings on in a social network, they read various news sources, they watch some videos, they comment on what is happening in their environment, etc. The perception we have on a particular story is not confined to decoding what a few authors say, the story is no longer individual but collective, and it is rarely presented as a finished product; there is always someone contributing something else.

This is not about minor challenges, but they do not transport the communicator to a forgotten shore as many new media enthusiasts try to do. The role of someone able to aggregate the information, start some stories and verify them will be increasingly important. The functions and productive structure may change, but if the initial pigeonholing is overcome, the role of someone who is capable of interpreting reality and presenting it in an appropriate manner within the new flow of information will become increasingly important.

Txema Valenzuela

Communication, BBVA, Madrid (Spain)

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