By GIOVANNI RODRIGUEZ
What does it mean today for a culture to go “mainstream“? A new take on an old metaphor.
Last week, I moderated a panel at the SES conference in New York City, an annual event that regularly draws a mainstream crowd of digital marketers. Big surprise this year: a special track on Latino marketing. The early buzz about the event was way positive. For many folks in the Latino marketing world, it was seen as an affirmation. Latino marketing had arrived. As one reporter for Fox mused, Latino marketing was finally entering the “mainstream.”
I’ve been on the Latino media-and-marketing beat for more than a year. And it’s a central topic of a book I am writing on how mass movements are made on the social web (the general topic of this blog). It’s a worthy topic — Latinos represent the fastest growing ethnic minority in the US, and are outperforming all other groups in digital media adoption. Some say that Latinos, in fact, are the future of the US, noting that by 2050 they will represent close to 3 in 10 of all US citizens. But what I have learned is that the notion of entering the mainstream needs to be “unpacked,” as the social digerati like to say. Left alone, it only confuses people about what Latinos want, and — more importantly — what Latinos can do to get what they want.
Let’s start with the obvious: the premise of Latino marketing is that the category needs its own pie (it’s own identity, it’s own budget). That would appear to be an argument to remove Latino marketing from the mainstream. But as most marketers know, content that is targeted and culturally relevant can be an effective way of engaging people with shared values; it makes perfect sense to “target” Latinos discretely. The only problem is that the very act of doing so can elevate the subcategory (by granting it attention, dollars, and respect) while simultaneously marginalizing it (by shunting it aside). The risk of creating a subcategory is creating a “marketing ghetto,” as a Latino marketing consultant told me in a recent interview. Not quite the desired result for organizations that are looking to engage the most vibrant ethnic group on the social web.
Another issue is less obvious: one thing the web has taught us — particularly the multicultural web — is that mainstream might soon become a relic. As a concept, the mainstream in fact may have lost its currency. You don’t hear many people using it these days. Why? The digital/social world has exposed the many tribes, subtribes and competing interests that have always existed but have been too difficult to fathom. When we say mainstream, we think of a single monolithic culture that dominates the conversation. More and more, we are seeing less of that. What we are seeing today is a multiplicity of cultures with varying degrees of influence. Which is not to say that there is no such thing as common forum for conversation, but in an age where even television is driven by diversity (note = all the channels on cable) as well as adversity (note = Fox News versus MSNBC), the concept of a mainstream seems quaint.
But therein lies the opportunity for Latinos or any other group vying for power on the new social web. We are living in a time where the mainstream has been supplanted by multiple streams, the metaphor of choice, by the way, of social networking companies that trade in conversation. The dream for Latinos may no longer be the crossover dream – i.e., the dream of entering the mainstream — but instead to create the dream stream, the one that everyone is watching, the one that most contributes to other streams, even the ones that pass for mainstream today.
What do Latinos want from the social web? The same thing that all ethnic and social minorities want — a greater role to play in remaking our world. But the point I am trying to make is that words matter. And that time may have come to retire some old metaphors — the words that help us understand the change that’s happening all around us — and invent some new ones. In the meantime, mainstream isn’t the only metaphor that needs a makeover. Before the web, the metaphor of the melting pot — where individual ethnic identities broke down and recombined into a new national identity — made some sense. It reflected the way many of us thought about the world.
It no longer does. Today, a metaphor would need to help us understand how the conversation flows. It flows not from a single source, but from an ever widening range of competing sources. As part of my new beat at Forbes (which begins with this post), I’ll be following those sources. Stay tuned. The social web is an unstoppable, yet navigable, Amazon of conversation.