The importance of social media is not the technology. In fact, it’s not even useful to think of individual examples of social media as technologies, it’s more useful to think of them as groups of people gathered in common, virtual, spaces.
The reason that this model of social media is more useful is that the importance of social media has nothing to do with individual technologies that community members use, but rather the a) new genres of communication that are being produced with the rise of social media activity and b) the new expectations that audiences have as a result.
For example, one of the values that seems to be emerging on the internet as a result of social media is the wisdom of the crowd – e.g., the value (esp. through increased authenticity) that content acquires when it is allowed to be reviewed openly by the audience. Blog postings and even major news sources, for example, look a lot more authentic when they enable comments to their postings – many of them also include links to Digg, Reddit, etc., that allow their content to participate in processes that allow the community to filter out the best and most interesting information.
There are even sites where content isn’t even published until it has been sufficiently vetted by the community (e.g., http://www.mylifeisaverage.com).
This level of audience involvement was unheard of 20 years ago when it was limited to call-in and game shows. But now two-way communication is the norm and that is going to change the way that content producers reach and relate to audiences.
On top of all this, the boundaries between the various social media spaces, marked solely by the technologies that people use to access them, are very quickly eroding as said technology develops. Many of the recent revisions to Facebook, for example (such as the changes to the wording of the status box to “what’s on your mind?” and the introduction of customized usernames and URLs for your profile) seem blatantly designed to make Facebook more Twitter-like, possibly in response to the threat that Twitter presents to Facebook’s marketshare.
Then there’s the fact that using freely-available software such as Tweetdeck, you can now read and update your Twitter feed(s) AND your Facebook status AND all your friends’ Facebook statuses AND access all your FB friends’ profiles AND keep track of your favourite blogs all in the same place.
In fact, right after I put up this blog posting, I will probably use Tweetdeck to post a notification about it to both my Twitter feed (www.twitter.com/iblechschmidt, if you care to follow me) and to my Facebook status.
Clearly, all of the major social media spaces are rapidly integrating and it’s only a matter of time until the divisions between the Twitter network and the Facebook network and the blogosphere and whatever else is out there just aren’t relevant, if those divisions even exist.
In 5 years (2 years! 6 months!) the specific network that someone is on will be about as relevant to your ability to network with them as the email client they use is to your ability to send them an email. The importance of social media, then, isn’t identifying the specific technology that will come out on top after the dust has settled, it’s learning how to use social media itself.
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