It’s all about ME! Relevance as the new media aesthetic.

I almost missed the High Balls.  My favorite 80s band played at the Melting Point and I didn’t know until the last minute.  Unforgivable.  Believe it or not with all the music swirling around the Classic City, Athens does not have many places where you can go to dance.  And I came within a few hours of missing the chance to strut my stuff to “Boogie Ooogie Ooogie.”  And for all of you whose stomach just turned over at the thought me cutting the rug, I have it on good authority that I am a pretty good dancer.  Let’s just say that all those seasons of “Dancing with the Stars” have not been for naught.

On Facebook I have “Liked” both the Highballs and the Melting Point. The schedule was published on a number of Athens’ community calendars.  Sure, I unsubscribed from the pesky listservs that the High Balls and the Melting Point maintain.  The High Balls kept clogging my inbox with news about concerts in North Carolina.  And the Melting Point sent me emails about jazz — they should have known I don’t do jazz.  But why wasn’t I notified about one of my favorite bands playing in my hometown?  It was almost as if they forgot about me.  After all, it is all about me, isn’t it?

The paradigm shift from the old mass media (undifferentiated messages to large heterogeneous audiences) to new era of social media has rendered relevance supreme.  We only care about what we care about.  I don’t want to search.  I want the world to know I want to know something before I even know that I want to know it.  And I want it given to me wherever I am on whatever device suits me at the time.  Is that too much to ask?

Relevance is what social media is all about.  With every decision to follow/unfollow, friend/unfriend, like/unlike we engage in a perpetual process of tailoring, filtering, refining our sources to ensure the information we receive is personally relevant.  In a world where we are drowning in the deluge of data, relevance is our lifeline.  Relevance is the new aesthetic whereby we will judge our media.

Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, and YouTube have only begun to scratch our relevance itch.  Now in the NMI we are exploring the new relevance revelations.  In other words, we are going to be answering the question “What comes after social media?”

As usual, Tim-Berners Lee (yeah, the guy who invented the web) was way out in front when he started talking about the semantic web years ago.  Imagine if machines didn’t just process information.  What if computers knew what the words, symbols, images, and sounds actually mean?  With this understanding, systems could do a better job of getting us what we really wanted.  Awesome!

But the semantic web has been hard.  In the past, we would have to overtly code the meaning into web pages.  We wrote tags in web pages that clarified that “Scott” is a person, “High Balls” is a band, “Melting Point” is club.  We call that metadata — data about data.  Hand coding metadata was too clunky and time consuming to ever really work.  But technological breakthroughs in just the last couple of years have automated metadata coding.  So now it is much easier to create “self-aware” information sets.

Huh?  That all sounds technical, doesn’t it?  What does it have to do with Facebook?  OK, let me make this really clear.

In the NMI this year, we are going to turn Athens, Georgia into the first ME environment.  ME = metadata everywhere.  Using powerful new technologies, we are going to capture everything that is important about Athens.  What businesses exist there selling what products at what price?  What bands are playing what types of music when and where?  What type of food is available today?  Athens is going to be a town that is all about ME — metadata everywhere.

But that is only the first step.  The foundation.  The really cool part comes when we begin to match that data with information about the people in Athens.  I won’t have to go searching for a good restaurant, the system will know what food I like AND what food is being served in downtown Athens.  I won’t have to endure listservs to find good music.  The system will know what music I enjoy and what band is playing in Athens.  And the system will be so smart that even if the High Balls aren’t playing, it can suggest bands that are similar (imagine the algorithm “I like Susan” + “Susan and I like the High Balls” + “Susan likes the 80s Bar downtown” = “I might like going to the 80s bar, too.”)  And it won’t be just clunky “recommendation” engines — radical new interfaces that will begin to connect us up with what we want.  Like how about a game that uses my personal information and information about my environment to craft brand new highly personalized entertainment experiences.

Plus it isn’t just places that should know about us.  Think about how powerful a ME business would be.  Successful companies need to understand the most important person in the customer’s life — the customer.

These types of systems that guarantee relevance are going to be the future of media.  They will be the way that we swim in the ever rising tide of messages.  This will be what comes after social media.

So next year in the NMI will be all about ME.  Athens will be all about ME.  It will be about making me happy.  Because life is too short to miss a single opportunity to dance to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Scott Shamp is the Director of the New Media Institute in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The New Media Institute is an interdisciplinary unit created to explore the creative, critical, and commercial implications of new digital communication technology. Shamp currently serves on the Board of the International Digital Media and Arts Association. He has been a member of iDMAa since its founding in 2003.
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