When I set out in December, 2010 to study and blog about social media I knew that the very thing it was designed to do – execute a rapid dissemination of information – was going to be the attribute that made it hardest to study.
I struggled to define social media, to cram it some sort of box and slap on a label. Then I wrestled with the ways it was changing our society; the impact on our elections, our habits as consumers and how we can interact in new ways when we get sick. But somewhere in the fog I realized that my own difficulty explaining social media became an analogy for the ways in which the world is both unknowingly shaping and simultaneously being shaped by our new ability to communicate with those we’d previously had no hope in reaching.
In his book SocialCorp, Joel Postman said, “This new generation of technology, content, websites, and online applications called social media has changed communications forever, giving companies and consumers the power to actually converse with each other like never before. Social media, done properly is the closest thing yet to one-on-one conversation between even the largest companies and the millions of people they do business with.”
Never before have the people who participate in the medium had so much ability to help shape the medium. Whether by design or by accident, we have created something in social media that is moving faster than most people can translate and anyone can predict. It took radio 38 years to reach 50 million users, it took the Internet 4 years. And despite the speed, how can anyone foresee the importance of social media when, unlike the radio or television that came after it, it isn’t controlled by anyone in particular?
By January, 2011 I was already struggling. The line between gathering background data and procrastinating began to blur. Early mornings were spent groggily “doing research,” which essentially meant visiting what felt like every social media website ever created. Evenings, which had been deemed, “writing time,” were being spent much in the same way. My Internet favorite list was getting longer and the usable content that I had written was getting shorter, when the inverse should have been true. I made a commitment to stay off social media and web surfing for 2 weeks. On day four, I engaged in the sort of self-bargaining I imagine is typical of drug addicts: “Just a few minutes on Twitter… how can I write about social media if I’m not current in social media?”
Sherry Turkle, a psychologist, author and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self has studied technology dependence and seen firsthand the reliance we develop on our virtual spaces. “I think when we’re texting, on the phone, doing your e-mail, getting information; the experience is of being filled up. And that feels good,” Turkle was quoted on PBS’ Frontline. “We assume that it is nourishing in the sense of taking us to a place we want to go. And I think that we are going to start to learn that in our enthusiasms and in our fascinations, we can also be flattened and depleted by what perhaps was once nourishing us.”
We’ve all gotten fat on information. The Internet is comprised of 255 million websites visited by the 2 billion people who are wired throughout the world. 294 billion emails were sent every day in 2010; 35 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute and 36 billion photos were posted to Facebook in one year alone. 74 percent of all active Internet households use social media. We are using social media to not just get information but also to forge the social connections we formerly sought in our workplaces, churches, bars and classrooms.
Social media is on its way to becoming the primary way we communicate. In February 2011, comScore published its 2010 Digital Year In Review in which it revealed that social networking accounted for 12 percent of all time spent online in the United States and that we managed to collectively spend 49.4 billion minutes on Facebook alone. And email, with its low cost and convenience once thought to be the clear winner of a race to be our primary form of communication; is being eschewed for a communication vehicle that is hosted in the public arena of social media. Email usage by 12-17 year olds was down 59% in 2010. Email usage overall was down 8%. We are not talking less, just using social media to communicate more. “Social networking has become an integral part of the fabric of the Internet and one that is increasingly becoming integrated into the experience of so many different activities online,” said the report.
Social networking has made companies understand that their employees and customers are now accustomed to engaging in two-way conversations. In 2007, Dell was launching IdeaStorm as a way to provide their customers input into the kinds of products they wanted to see the computer manufacturer produce. Of the 10,000+ ideas that were contributed, 400 have been implemented. This, a sort of virtual focus group, has become a way for companies to garner ideas from their customers – simultaneously giving them what they want and getting innovative ideas free of charge. Kim Kardashian took to Twitter to get suggestions for the name of her fragrance. Companion Credit Union let their employees vote on their logo while Jet Blue was inspired to revoke a policy that meted a $50 fee for carry-on bikes after hearing complaints via Twitter. Social media means being talked “at” less and less and invited to talk “with” more and more.
The utility of social networking and its two-way/many-to-many communication channel doesn’t stop with businesses and advertising. In 2004 Howard Dean supporters showed the collective power of technology to enable Dean to run a successful campaign. Even though the campaign didn’t end with election, Dean supporters provided a roadmap for future politicians in their readiness to organizes meet ups, contribute in forums and author blogs. Social media will play an enormous role in determining who will occupy the White House in 2012, as a Pew Research Center reveals that 1 in 5 adults who use the Internet turned to social networks to get or share information about midterm elections last year and 53 percent of Internet users went online to engage in campaign-related activity. Politicians like Paul Ryan, John Thune and Massachusetts’-own Scott Brown are gaining notoriety for their “regular but unobtrusive” use of social networking.
And when has it ever been easier to find a potential mate, whether we went to an Ivy League school, want someone who is passionate about tennis or just want to find someone who is quite rich? Hospitals, like Mass General, are using social networking to connect patients with other similar patients and allow them to keep in touch with friends and family while hospitalized. Over 4M people are using Mass General’s CarePages, alone. In the classroom, children are putting pencil to lined paper less and blogging more. One Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that almost three-fourths of 7th through 12th graders have at least one social media profile. Few would argue that the future will hold more collaboration across all platforms – business, politics, interpersonal relationships, healthcare, education.
This collaboration will be rooted in reality – real identities and not the anonymity that shaped the early “nobody knowing you’re a dog” Internet days. OpenID, which has been likened to a “driver’s license for the entire Internet” has been integrating with websites since 2007. But Facebook, backed by an existing client base of 500 million users, may have quietly put an end to anonymity on the Internet. Facebook Connect prevents website visitors from having to create unique accounts and allows them to use their Facebook profiles to participate in commenting and in viewing information. Popular websites like AIM, Vimeo, Digg, CNN and Boston.com have already integrated Connect, surely more are to follow.
When we do connect to browse and comment, it will be from a wider range of devices. According to comScore, 1 in 4 mobile users now have smartphones. We are increasingly using our phones, iPads, e-readers and tablets to browse the Internet, download applications, stream content and of course, connect to social media. An eMarketer study says that by 2012 more than 800 million users worldwide will participate in social networks via their mobile device, up from 82 million in 2007. And we’ll look to our phones to not just check-in with location based services, as more than 381 million people did last year on Foursquare alone but also to make payments and get discounts from the merchants and venues we check-in with. Near Field Communication, which is a technology that executes a short-range wireless exchange of payment information between a smartphone and an N.F.C reader – is set to be rolled out in Android phones. Imagine meandering down a street and being alerted about a deal by your smartphone as you walk past a coffee shop. After you check-in, you’re presented with a coupon, make a payment by waving your phone and you’re on your way without touching your wallet.
If we’re not seeking deals, we’ll want more engaging content. Internet users are watching over 34 billion videos online in the United States alone. There are some, like Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, who are betting millions the importance of online videos will only increase. Saverin is the lead investor in an $8M round of financing for Qwiki, a service that responds to search queries with interactive multimedia presentations rather than links.
Throughout my research, I came upon countless case studies, statistics and examples of all the ways in which social media have enabled us to date. What I couldn’t surmise was how, exactly it was going to enable us in the future. Would it further erode our privacy? Enrich our lives by helping us meet more people, stay better connected with our loved ones and network within our industry? All of these things? No one can see what is on the horizon. But I believe the next iteration of social networking technology has become visible over the next hill. A mobile, video-based experience and increasingly singular identities will usher us into the next phase of group sharing.
In his book Content Nation, John Blossom highlights the importance of technology and social networking in these terms: “Technology now allows any person on the planet to publish things to virtually any number of people in any place at any time at little or no personal cost – without them having to know in any great detail how it happens.” While true, the problem with not knowing how “it” happens, is that you can’t become aware of “what” will happen.
And by the time the snow had melted and the end to my blogging project was in site, I had given up on the hope of predicting the ways in which we’d be changed by our new abilities to talk and connect. I thought back to what Sherry Turkle had said, that we could be “nourished” by information or “flattened and depleted.” I thought of social media as the serving tray, and information as the food. I could choose to siphon up junk – feel bloated and groggy, throw up, nap and then commit to a diet – as I did back in January. Or I could just commit to making better choices, finding the real meat of information and using that to advance my own agenda be that to learn more, reach a politician or just be closer to the people in my life. Just like anything else, social media is what you make it.