Why Don’t We Teach the History of Digital Media and Marketing?

A focus on the immediate present prevents an understanding of our digital tools and their impact on our culture

Those that don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it

History is a funny thing. There are many lessons that we can gain and benefit from.

In this fast-moving, ever-changing world of digital media, we are ever so ignorant of the digital products that we use every day.  I am amazed at how many people who are excited about Metaverse, but have never heard about Second Life. Without history, without the context of history and the lessons we learn, then all new technology is in a vacuum – absent of any lessons we can learn from the past!

The more our culture uses and relies on social platforms, the more we need to have a deeper understanding of the impact and past lessons of these platforms. Until then, we will be always be “users.”

Show Notes:


I was talking with one of my digital marketing students a few weeks ago. Of course, the conversation goes into the “behind the scenes” content, or things that don’t make the official curriculum – you know – the things that you wish teachers would really say…

We talked about metaverse and what is happening with it. I gave a few examples of how a virtual works can be beneficial by giving industrial and medical examples, but I contrasted them with Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of attending meetings, having coffee or playing games. “It’s what second life attempted to do … like 10 years ago.” And none of these young professional had ever heard anything about second life.

Why don’t we teach history in digital marketing training and education?

I explained second life to this group of young professionals. I showed them screen shots, news headlines and we discussed how it was the darling of the tech community – until it wasn’t. Of course, the relevance and parallels Second Life has to Meta is easy to see!  The only difference is that Second Life has users first, and then the brands jumped in as soon as it was the shiniest thing – this was pre-Facebook, mind you!

This added bit of history and context changed the view of Meta and also caused more investigation into what factors influenced Second Life’s growth – and demise into obscurity.

With Meta, the brands are all over it! Well before the users, because, well, the user numbers are a bit sparse for some off the main events that have happened in the metaverse. Yes, we could be seeing the early stages and early days. But I also have a healthy skepticism, as history shows us that people build things first  – not brands. If you remember Google+, it’s the same idea. Here we have the worlds’ leading media company, and it couldn’t build its own social media platform! Why not? Because it started brand first, not people first. Nearly all social media platforms started grassroots and built based on word of mouth and networks….

However, if you have no historical context to any of this, then how do you judge mew media and react? I’m amazed at how many people – and marketers simply jump into the latest flavor of the month without first investigating and learning about these platforms!

Even in education, there is a terrible precedents of teachers having students use social media to create assignments, but by doing this – using the social platform for homework rather than the lesson, teachers or instructors are not teaching the actual skills or instruction necessary to understand, utilize and create with the technology in a full capacity! And they may be opening the student up to even more issues by using a platform that requires maturity, literacy, and skills to navigate! Don’t even get me started on the illegal data gathering by these platforms on teens and children!

One of my favorite stories is when one of my teenage daughters wanted to use Snapchat.  Of course, I said no.  OF course, I got the reason that all of her friends were using it! So, we sat down and had a talk about the history and purpose of Snapchat. It was easy to do because

In my teaching in this industry, to practitioners and aspiring marketers, I focused on providing both sides the hype and the holistic view of how digital media works, rather than a series of disjointed and facts about how many monthly active users there are.

As an instructor, I have I teach the responsible and ethical approach to these platforms.  First, I present the sociological perspective, along with information literacy skills and evaluations to the individual’s responsibility in its use.  Then, I present the unethical business models that most platforms rely upon to on to unknowingly spy and collect data on its users.

In this case, I explained to my daughter that Snapchat was developed by its founders specifically for users to take and send pictures of a sexual nature that would be deleted quickly with no record. However, during their ownership dispute, which went to litigation, court documents poured out showing their intention and that they had stored the posted images in their servers, not deleting them as the app stated. (Of course those servers were hacked).

So, I concluded to my daughter. No, you will not be using snap chat.  In fact, I should probably give your friends parents a call and talk with them.

My daughters have mentioned more than a few times how uncool, it is to have a dad who is in this industry. I make up for it, as I told one of my other kids about BeReal before it hit her school. So I guess that makes me cool?

Without historical context, we lose this important information. Social channels do not exist in a vacuum. They have all been created for a specific purpose. Today, they rely on gathering data to sell ads to survive. But do we even take a moment to understand how they extract the data, how invasive it is, and how much is taken without consent? Or, will that bother us too much in the moments before we lose interests and go back to scrolling through our feed?

That’s all been turned upside down with Tik Tok. Did you know that clubhouse, telegram, and other platforms came out about the same time as TikTok.  Usually it is whatever hits the public zeitgeist and media attention media. Not this time. This time, TikTok showed everyone how to dominate and grow – by spending billions of dollars.

While a lot of articles highlight TikTok’s rapid market share, very few trace the origins and methods used to launch it into the worldwide market.

Back in Sept 2019, Tik Tok achieved one of its most high profile agreements as NFL signed a 2-year partnership. Immediately afterward, Tom Brady started posting on TikTok instead of his usual Instagram account, even though he stated that he did not know what TikTok was. Of course, his first post garnered big numbers as it coincided with the NFL’s announcement of the league partnership. Amounts of how much the agreements are worth and how much Tom Brady receives are undisclosed.

The NFL isn’t the only sports league to have signed an agreement with TikTok. The NBA & Tik Tok have a 2018 Agreement. La Liga, a March 2019 Agreement.  To give a sense of the financial scope of these agreements, in August 2020 Tik Tok became a sponsor of the Yankees and Yes Network for $10 Million.

These are just a small example of how TikTok bought their way to prominence.  With a nearly unlimited budget, they signed agreements with celebrities, singers, actors, and sports stars to use the platform. Then they went to sports leagues, events, and sponsorships, and in a few months – they were everywhere.

This is why historical content is so necessary!  In reviewing course curriculum for schools, universities and businesses, I am amazed at how much of the educational content lacks any historical background – it all focuses on what the platforms do, how many users they have and what makes great content. …

But What was that about avoiding mistakes in the future?

In my classes, I have students research each platform with an emphasis on the development, ownership, monetization, and legal issues. This provides a more comprehensive view of learning about social media, as we learn about the business aspects of how they stay in business. AS student learn, these social platforms are not there simply for our entertainment at the grace of the owners – they are there to make money, by giving tiny rewards to people that produce content. But producing nothing of their own.

However, I do not simply present an indictment or negative view of the tech platforms.  By making this part of the curricula when teaching about new media and social media, it creates an even more engaging discussion and thought process about the nature of technology, and how it affects our culture and the economy.

It develops more curiosity in students when they find that many media platforms are either fully ad supported or unprofitable business models.  It opens up the view of the media itself to questions and investigations, but at the same time equips the student with an informed approach to the platform.  They are more confident in their work and able to operate, knowing the risks and purpose of the platform.

The next time you feel compelled to mindlessly scroll through a news feed. I challenge you.  Spend a few minutes learning about that platform. Get to know the history, research the brand, just as you might looks at the ingredients on a food package – look at the ingredients of that social media channel.

Be careful, though….You just might decide that it’s not healthy.

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