Recently, a friend wrote to ask me how I was feeling about social media these days.
As it happens, I’ve been thinking about social media a lot recently, in part, because we are, I think, at a bit of a crossroads. My friend’s question presented the perfect opportunity to articulate my thoughts.
Here’s a revised version of my reply:
On the one hand, I can’t help but assess social media from the perspective of my experience of undergraduate life.
For a while there, for those of us who jumped on board in a big way in late 2008 and early 2009, the experience of social media was a lot like my experience of first year university and residence life.
In the beginning, everyone was a fish out of water, everyone was looking for new friends, and everyone was ready to be friends with everyone else. We were all open to possibility of the possible. We left the doors to our social media rooms open all the time. Our social media campus was intimate enough that we could easily talk to the professors, tutors, and senior students and take on a leadership role.
Then, eventually, a year or maybe a year and a half later — just like the end of my first year at university — tribes and smaller closed communities began to coalesce. Social media became less about finding new friends and more about nurturing the friends people already had. People started dropping out because they realized that our social media campus really wasn’t for them after all.
I think the trend for closed, inward-looking communities will continue and social media for many people will primarily be tools for managing and nurturing the relationships they already have. For a lot of people, I think these tools will only ever serve that function, particularly because so many people are now jumping onboard only because so many of their friends are already using the tools. Why create a new network, when my familiar network is right here already?
For someone like me, who thinks the real value of these tools is their ability to create new and unexpected community, that conclusion/prediction/outcome is more than a little bit depressing, in large part because it’s just to admit that humans always tend to form closed inward looking communities.
There is, nevertheless, good news.
Out there on social media, it’s always first year for some people. It’s just a matter of finding them and connecting. It will be a little tougher, as the campus gets crowded, but, as more people becomes less willing to engage beyond a certain circle of friends, those who are willing to engage beyond those circles in a meaningful way will have an even greater impact.
The lamentable human tendency towards closed inward looking communities also represents a real opportunity. For example, at the end of my first year in university, I ended up in charge of a bunch of clubs simply because no one else wanted to do it and that lead to all kinds of opportunities down the road. When no one else even knows where the plate is, stepping to it becomes even more valuable.
Moreover, in every closed community, there will always be a few people thinking, “man, there’s got to be something more than this” and social media can connect those people, even as they hang out with their “real” friends. They don’t need to abandon their friends or risk ostracization simply because they are showing interest in a new social group. With a global organizing tool now at your finger tips, if you organize only 1% of the people who share your interests, you are looking at a sizable group of people.
Less allegorically but in a similar vein, the fact that the big old institutions are now taking a serious interest in social media presents a serious threat to the vitality of these tools. A lot of people who made it to the top of those institutions are going to try to make sense of these new tools in terms of the old practices that got them to the top.
Some will do this for Machiavellian reasons but for most people it will just be a matter of them making sense of new tools in terms that are familiar to them and have been successful up to this point. Because the tools are user driven and because users tend to follow the examples of recognized leaders, I wouldn’t be surprised if the dominant practices on social media look more and more like the mass media communication practices of the 80s and 90s.
The good news: unless the internet is somehow destroyed or dramatically hobbled, the social media mammals will always be able to play safely in the shadows of the dinosaurs. In fact, the more conservative the dominant practices become the more interesting the mammals will seem.
The reality check: mammals didn’t defeat the dinosaurs, a meteorite did. Mammals just happened to be able to adapt when the big rock fell.
Is there a big rock on the horizon? I’d say, yes.
The aging retiring population might be enough to count as a big rock. It’s certain that the financial piracy in the US and Europe is unsustainable. The massive shift from rural to urban living could do it. Our changing climate is a likely candidate. My personal favorite is the fact that it’s currently predicted that there will be 1.4 mobile devices for every human on the planet by 2016. For me, that kind of connectivity is mind blowing. From enough of a distance, we humans start to look like neurons in a new kind of brain.
Whatever the future holds, I think social media will play an important role and the social media environment, however crowded and banal it may at times seem, is filled with tremendous opportunity for people who are prepared to pursue it. The low hanging social media fruit is gone and, honestly, that’s probably a good thing. There’s now a much better chance that we will figure out that there’s something much more interesting than fruit out there to pick.
Conclusion/advice: stay nimble, keep learning, and be ready to seize the opportunities created by social media when the big rock falls.