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June 07, 2009

Thinking about the Roman crypt of the Capuchin monks and social "media"

While traveling in Rome I took some time to visit the crypt of the Capuchin monks at the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione. My companion was the producer of Mediabytes, Shelly Palmer -- neither of us knew were about to have a very unusual experience.

2436386058_c8a072005a The Capuchin monks conceived the idea of using the bones of their late colleagues and a few other Romans as a medium of expression. The result is a series of rooms in which the walls are decorated with human bones. I found viewing this creation very strange, quite moving, and more than little creepy.

I guess you would have to call the artist a "sculptor," but what sort of mind can conceive building structures, arches, and even lighting fixtures out of leg bones, pelvises and skulls? There are over 4000 skeletons represented here.

Even as you marvel at the clever decorations on the walls and ceiling, including abstract patterns drawn in vertebrae and a grim reaper whose scythe and scales are made of shoulder blades and skull fragments, part of you is realizing that these were people -- that the art you art seeing was once living, speaking, interacting human being. The art has a purpose, and the purpose is clear, with a placard at the end that says:2435568327_2079ab51de

What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be

Emerging from this strange crypt, I realized that the artists who created it were creating media -- art with a message -- and that this media was made of people. And thinking on this, I realized it holds a strange parallel with what we call "social media," which is also media that's made of people.

The monks could craft their media in whatever form they liked, because the people who became that medium could no longer object. If you want to treat people as media and you have a fixed idea of your message, it's easier if the people are dead. The owners of the skeletons presumably agreed to turn their remains over to the unnamed sculptor to do with as he pleased.

In the social world, the people are as far from dead as you can get. They go their own way, they do their own thing. Sure, you can think of them as a form of media, but there is no editor, no artist, no sculptor that determines the form they take. And any attempt to control that expression will fail, since the media itself will rebel and take what shape it pleases.

That's why "social media" doesn't feel like media to me, and why I don't like the term.

Unlike the bones of the Capuchin monks, the people in social media are available to communicate. Talk to them. Listen to them. Immerse yourself in their needs, wants, desires, and connections. This may not be media, but it is social, and it's far more effective.

Photos: postcards from the church, via Johnny Söderberg on Flickr.


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Jamie Favreau

I definitely agree with you on being social and not really media. This is a new form of communication and people need to listen and NOT just pushing your message onto people.

Amber Benson

I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who thinks about social media on vacation. ;)

I agree, the term social media leads to thinking about it as a channel versus a pervasive shift in the very infrastructure of marketing engagement.


just one word.. "wow"

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