Originally published in Trends Journal, October 2013
We’ve always had social media. Sitting around a campfire telling stories is fundamentally social, with the air around our heads being the medium, populated by human voices. Sixteenth Century denizens of Florence and Rome were known to tie notes to sculptures expressing their approval or criticism in what were, perhaps, some of the earliest bulletin boards. Even the paintings found in the bowels of Lascaux appear to have been the products of gatherings, not the efforts of lone individuals.
The British psychologist Robin Dunbar suggested that chatter, gossip, and even conversation are human extensions of social grooming. All mammals engage is social grooming of some form – licking, picking nits, smoothing the furrowed brows on one another’s forehead. It’s interesting to note that social grooming has been associated with an increase of the neurotransmitter dopamine – the chemical associated with a feeling of well-being, and one known to be increased not only in social grooming, but in gambling, sex, and even in the use of social media. It’s often associated with addictive behaviors.
The addictiveness of social media is a noted facet of the technologies that have emerged in the past decade. There are behaviors that, if not born in social media, certainly have become more ubiquitous. Social platforms encourage curation, sharing, micro-gifting, and even game behaviors. The very fact that people can connect more often with a broader network of others allows these new behaviors to happen in a way that could not in the absence of such networks.
If you simply look at all of the social media platforms, you can easily be overwhelmed by all of the features that are being introduced. The rate of innovation is incredibly fast. Instead, you can look at the platforms in terms of their design patterns. The idea of design patterns originated in architecture and urban planning, and was then used extensively in software design. For instance, the typical ecommerce checkout page follows a pattern that most of us find completely familiar. One of the success factors of Facebook was the ease in which it allow its users to create photo albums, a design pattern that Facebook helped create. Pinterest has extended that pattern, and allows for an even richer experience in saving and sharing images. Other social interactions are more commonplace, and almost universal across social platforms, like the act of signifying approval of something. These “likes,” “plusses,” and “favorites” can be seen as micro-gifts; after all, the recipient frequently says, “thank you.”
It’s not surprising that Google in creating Google Plus has made the move to have a social platform that competes with Facebook. With each keystroke, users of social media are freely adding data to some of the largest databases ever created. The owner of that data will have the capacity to predict consumer behavior in ways that have, in the absence of that data, been unimaginable. Furthermore, both Facebook and Google have designed systems in which data from applications outside of their platforms are also adding data. For instance, when a Facebook user plays a song on Spotify or watches a movie on Netflix, that information flows into the Facebook data collection.
While the US has been behind in the adoption of mobile and smartphone technology, it’s quickly catching up. Wearable devices, such as Google Glass and smart watches, are only beginning to become commonplace, and are predicted to proliferate as the cost of MEMS sensors continues to decrease. Google’s emphasis on the development of wearable devices and social media is prescient: they’re creating an always-connected device recording every motion feeding a database of human interactions.
While the battle between social data ubiquity between Google and Facebook may seem like the giant final battle scene in the Lord of the Rings, they are not the only players. LinkedIn, the oldest of the major social platforms, has been undergoing dramatic overhauls of their system, creating a social eco-system that ties in with the way people conduct business. In younger aged populations, platforms like Tumblr, a platform recently acquired by Yahoo! and Instagram are becoming more popular than Facebook.
The adoption rate of Internet and social media usage has recently slowed, with overall US use of social media by internet users around 70%. The so-called Millennials and the following generation, however, were born into these technologies, and their usage rate is closer to 90% [http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2012/March/Pew-Internet-Social-Networking-full-detail.aspx]. The increase of smart phones and wearable devices will bring those numbers up even higher. We are approaching a time when less than 10% of the population is not using social media in some form or another.
In marketing, smart companies are eschewing traditional norms of advertising, and embracing passion or purpose-centered communication plans. New approaches are based on storytelling, participatory media, and transmedia, and less about self-promotion. In the era of social media, audiences or customers aren’t interested in anything that can be perceived as salesmanship, thus companies are having to scramble to become creators of original and valuable content: brands are becoming publishers.
Social media and the Internet technologies that have enabled them constitute the largest disruptions to business communications since the invention of the Gutenberg press. These new technologies are bringing with them whole new approaches to the creation of value, and completely transforming the relationship of the creators of goods and services with those who consume them.