Once upon a time, in March of 2009, when I started using Twitter to support my recently acquired blogging habit, social media’s potential seemed to me to be unlimited. Its early promise lay in its ability to create new and unexpected connections and, ultimately, community.
For about a year or two, anything seemed possible. Eager and creative people were using social media to connect with like-minded people regardless of the geography involved. Together, they worked and played to expand the bounds of the possible. It seemed like social media might break – at long last – the cultural dominance of mass marketing and its omnipresent brands.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that the early promise of social media was somewhat ephemeral. It originated, on the one hand, in the reluctance of the giants of mass marketing to embrace social media and, on the other hand, by the specific intentions and efforts of many of those early users. Once the big brands got on board, more middle-of-the-road organisations and users followed suit, and the culture of social media began to shift. Some of the best people were hired into those organizations and had to make social media more palatable to them. Many others simply lost interest, as users began to use the tools differently.
Other forces were at work too. The market demanded that social media generate revenue and profits. The owners of social media responded by embracing the old and familiar habit of selling advertising. They tweaked the tools to favour those who could and would pay to play, and those who paid to play played differently. Meanwhile, the mainstream media finally took an interest, focusing on social media success stories that made sense from the perspective of their business model, which requires attracting masses of eyeballs for advertisers. Very quickly, the goal of social media shifted from “connecting” to “going viral” and, as new users adopted the tools, they also adopted the culture of mass marketing achievement that was peddled to them. Users now acted like brands rather than people because they were told that was the secret to success.
Fortunately, people acting like brands is very dull indeed. I say “fortunately” because the hope for social media’s renewal lies precisely in this rising tide of dull, mass-marketed homogeneity. Users will respond, I hope, by rejecting the mass marketing ideology and by focusing once more on the promise and power of connecting with other like-minded people and communities in order to expand the bounds of the possible. It will, nevertheless, be much harder to connect these days with so much more noise in the mix, but, as they so often say, where there’s a will there’s a way.