Fame fight: Facebook questions TV’s cultural relevance as local Instagram numbers released

This week marked the first time that Facebook officially announced local Instagram numbers, with the company revealing that 1.5 million New Zealanders are active on the platform every month.

This figure sits alongside the 2.9 million New Zealanders who use Facebook every month, consolidating an enormous base of local users.         

Facebook’s group industry director for Facebook Australia and New Zealand Paul McCrory says these numbers indicate an important cultural shift in society.

“Back in the day, cultural capital used to be built around the television screen and that cultural capital is no longer built there because people aren’t there as much anymore,” he says.  

“What used to be a case of the family gathering around the television doesn’t exist anymore because people are exposed to about 2,000 different media messages every day. This is the opportunity and the challenge for the industry.”

One way of identifying a cultural shift is by looking at the language we use to describe moments or events shared across the culture. ‘Did you see it on TV last night?’, ‘Did you read that story?’ or ‘Did you hear it on the radio?’ have long been questions asked when it comes to sharing a moment of cultural significance. But there is an argument now that some of this cultural currency is shifting to the online space, with the phrase ‘let me show you this video’ becoming as common as its forbears.

“This is our exact point,” says McCrory. “Brands used to be made famous on TV, but they’re not made famous on TV anymore. TV has done an excellent job so far, but it’s not your fame-maker anymore. It doesn’t have your cultural capital, because the audience isn’t there.”

The cultural depreciation of television has long been touted by the digital aficionados, but the assertions have tended toward exaggeration.   

Nielsen research out this month showed that 3.1 million New Zealanders still watch free-to-air broadcasts every week and that 23 of the 28 hours spent watching video are done so on television screens.

To say that television is culturally irrelevant—or even not as relevant as it once was—also tends to overlook the enormous cultural impact of a show like Married at First Sight, which has captivated local audiences over the last few months and showed that watercooler chat can still be dominated by a television show.

McCrory isn’t wrong in suggesting that the world is changing. Gangnam Style, Rebecca Black, Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen, the Ice Bucket Challenge and Tom Sainsbury’s impersonations all owe their fame to online distribution channels.

However, as shown by the fact that four of the ten most popular YouTube videos of 2016 came from television shows (and one of them was an ad for Nike, presumably destined to be shown on TV), digital sometimes leans on television for its fame. We’ve also seen this play out in the local market this year, with Shortland Street’s ‘please tell me that’s not your penis’ cliffhanger becoming a viral hit across social media.

In his book, The Hit Makers, Derek Thompson argues that nothing becomes popular or is integrated into culture serendipitously and that broadcasting information to the right audience remains integral to the process. To explain this point, Thompson recently used the example of a Super Bowl ad during an interview with Forbes.       

“If 150 million people watch a Super Bowl ad, nobody will claim the ad went viral. It clearly was just broadcast to 150 million people at once. But if this article gets a lot of readers because it hits the front page of Reddit, lots of people will say “wow it went viral!” Um, no it didn’t. It hit the front page of an enormous website. That’s a broadcast.”

Cultural currency is an important battleground for media channels because brands want to see themselves at the centre of cultural discussions.

As advertising philosopher Faris Yakob told StopPress in 2016, the challenge is that it’s become increasingly difficult to determine where our culture is being shaped.

“I think our culture is fragmenting and it has been for the past 15 years now,” Yakob said.  “There are very few things when you meet someone that you can talk about, whereas before you could always talk about certain big pieces of culture, whether it’s Shortland Street, or Neighbours, or things that even if you don’t watch them, you know about them. Now things can be really famous and no-one will have ever heard of them.”

There is perhaps no better example of this than a niche Instagram celebrity, adored by millions while simultaneously invisible to millions of others.

As the media industry fragments, so too do the concepts of celebrity and culture. There’s no single fame-maker that dominates the cultural mood quite as much as TV once did, but rather a number of different forces that operate alongside each other, sometimes overlapping but often existing independently.   

For Facebook, its positioning as the ‘fame-maker’ serves to build on the narrative that the platform is a mass media (or, in the words of creative agency partner Tom Hyde, “super massive mass media”) channel rather than just a social media platform. It’s about shifting the conversation from one of scale to what that scale can actually achieve.

No matter how big Facebook and Instagram’s audiences might become, the platforms don’t create anything themselves and remain entirely beholden to users producing content that helps to shape the culture. The users are the fame-makers. Maybe it’s more accurate to call Facebook the fame-sharer.

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