One thing I have come to understand with technology and media is that everything new is nothing new at all; they’re just new ways of looking at things. How we communicate and connect today can be traced back to how people have always communicated and connected. Digital and social media are not that much different in their nature than to what we’re already accustomed.
This point was made clear to me on a recent trip San Francisco when I visited the epicurean delight called the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Held every Tuesday and Saturday mornings at the historic Ferry Plaza building, amazing selections of produce, meats, cheeses, chocolates, and other food stuff abound. (I recommend making it your whole Saturday morning.) The site is a beautifully restored public building with cafes and food shops open every day of the week, but they are joined on Farmers Market days by perhaps a hundred vendor stalls that ring the building.
As I walked around the market enjoying the different aromas and flavors, I captured the scenes with my iPhone’s camera and began to realize how similar it was to the world of digital and social media.
The Farmers Market is a space where large corporate entities intermingle with small Mom & Pop operations on equal footing. While the large entities had shiny, polished stalls inside the main building and were doing steady business, the real action was outside in the modest tent stalls.
Unlike the sterile supermarket (broadcast media), the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (social and digital media) was alive. There was a noticeable sense of excitement and buzz caused by the higher level of interaction between consumer and producer. People brought empty tote bags and roller carts and were leaving with bounties of goods to take home.
Most of the produce and food stalls had a plethora of samples that enticed you to experience the flavors for yourself. At one booth, a sign read, “Sampling Is Mandatory! (we are watching)”. Most people running a booth had a certain range of produce or food stuffs they offered and were eager to tell you lots about it.
For those who wanted more than just the raw materials, you could choose from a variety of prepared meals cooked fresh and made to order for. There were even non-profit organizations who had their own stalls to promote their causes – one in particular, La Cocina, provides commercial kitchens and business advice for low income micro entrepreneurs who want help taking their food product to market.
Inserted in this bountiful selection was an unassuming stall that was an enclosed shipping truck. Inside was one of the most coveted service at the market – knife sharpening. By 10am, this guy had already taken on all his orders for the day.
As I sat down with an amazing melange of sourdough, smoked fish, capers, and fresh cream cheese, I came across one of the best musicians not on the Internet – Flat Cut F. He was a nice guy who was sitting on a chair near some tables with his hat out. Like the handful of musicians around the market, he just showed up and started playing. I’m glad he did.
Inside the permanent structure, I met Karim and Polly with CleanFish and visited with them at length. Their company has created a sustainable approach to commercial fishing that stretches from the fisherman to the distributors to the restaurants to the consumers themselves. Everything they do is focused on making sure we have enough seafood to eat without harming the ecosystems they come from.
As I was making one final pass of the market, I noticed one stall had a line of about 45 people long. It was the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. I figured if that many people were waiting in line for their coffee (with a Starbucks across the street), it had to be worth the wait in line. When it came time for my order, I asked for their best drink and got the Gibraltar, a short cappuccino served in a glass tumbler.
Enjoying my Gibraltar, I couldn’t resist starting a conversation with Jack Gold who was wearing a t-shirt that implored, “Protect Me From What I Want“, which it turns out was a saying that he came across at an art installation while he was executive director of the Providence Preservation Society. He is now the executive director of the San Francisco Architectural Heritage.
Before I left, I noticed there was a cooking demonstration being held encouraging the use of various produce at the peak of their season. Right next to it were political supporters of the Democratic Party voicing their support for Obama and one who was collecting signatures to name the sewage plant after our current president. Not too far away was a nice man from Oklahoma with a show cat and a sign asking for money to help enter a cat competition. How often do you see those three side-by-side at the supermarket?
In reflecting on my experience, here are a few of similarities of social media and the farmers market:
- Both encourage a stronger sense of community – letting consumers meet the producers directly
- Large corporate entities and smaller entities can compete side-by-side
- It’s not the fancy stall and slick marketing operations but the quality and authenticity of the product that is most important
- The more interaction, the better: people want the opportunity to share their views and opinions
- Even low tech companies can thrive here
What are your thoughts? What similarities and differences do you see?