I kept up with my 2009 resolution of attending social events last Friday night as I "lurked" at the Social Vibe/Joe Marchese-sponsored Social Media Happy Hour at The Benjamin Hotel. It was your typical incestuous (and not in the bad way. Then again, the term "incestuous", I guess, is never seen in a positive light) NY scene of social media people. While there, I quickly found myself wrapped in discussion about, what else, social media.
In fact, the conversation started when a researcher from MySpace asked me my thoughts on social media. He asked, "Why is social media important?" My (some might say soporific) answer:
Communication technologies have continually shaped and altered the human race's consciousness. We can start with the advent of the printed word, but for brevity's sake, I'll start with the telegraph, or as Tom Standage calls it, The Victorian Internet. This new communication technology enabled people to have instantaneous conversation from thousands of miles away.
A telegram from London to NY would take no time at all, a snap of the finger if you will, compared to sending a letter. This little machine that breaks space and time changed the way the world saw itself. Imagine getting news from halfway around the world in a matter of minutes; imagine hearing that your sister in Moscow is getting married while you toil away in the Lower East Side of Manhattan; imagine learning how the stocks were unfolding down on Wall Street as they happened.
We take this mentality for granted now that we've evolved our mass media consumption. But it didn't stop with the telegram. The telephone lent voice to text. The radio broadcasted voice (both live and recordings) to millions of listeners. The television aired images of us. For each new communication technology (yes, even the non-mass communication technologies like the phone and 'graph), a new mindset would set in.
But the overarching theme to all these technologies is that of a one-way conversation; the top-down dictum that we hear so much about. Whether it's a politician (or monarch, or dictator) or it's a corporation, for years they have been the ones who controlled the message. They would craft, disseminate, respond, rinse and repeat. It's kind of like looking at the original Shannon-Weaver model of communication of Sender --> Message --> Receiver. Obviously, the flaw in this model was that it didn't account that communication is a two-way street!
Social media has created this two-way dialogue and history has taught us that with new ways of communicating to the masses, new ideas, new possibilities emerge. This is why social media is important. Not because you can "friend" someone, or "tweet" your mundane existence, but because you can now participate in the debate (whether it's debating the highest office in the U.S or the stimulus package or A-Rod) and not just be thrown aside to look at press releases.
Social media has created transparency...at least in theory. Right now, because there is still an old-world mentality, transparency isn't so transparent. But at the rate we're evolving, transparency will be a common idea (like democracy is for us) for our children.
Social media has created a new definition of responsibility. Companies now answer to the consumer in more direct ways. For example, ask Motrin.
Last night, while at the MediaBistro/PRNewser event, the topic once again came up. The fun thing about this notion of social media is that we are living history. We won't know the effects of social media (whether on the personal front or from the corporate/branding perspective) for quite some time. But what we do know is that social media is important for today, for this moment. It's up to you to understand, immerse and not be an idiot about it.