What’s the big idea with social media? #media140

Media 140 Perth 2012

I was lucky enough to be invited to Media 140 in Perth recently to discuss what the ‘big idea’ is with social media.

The idea was for a context setting discussion about social media and how it is changing business and society.

DIGITAL REVOLUTION
We are living through a digital revolution that is changing the world we inhabit as absolutely and as irrevocably as the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

That previous industrial revolution changed our relationship with time, with money, and with people. It created the wage labourer that we know, and the unions whom we’ve to come know encapsulated by the term ‘organised labour’. It created a society governed by the mechanical clock and the notion of work versus non-work time.

The digital revolution is on a similar scale, and this scale is based on a remarkable shift in the means of production. The digital revolution has at its roots a democratization of access to the means of communication.

EXPECTATIONS AND ACCESS TO COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY
As a result we are seeing a shift in the expectations of ordinary people about communications technology and their access to that technology. Further, we are seeing a rapid evolution of behaviour in relation to communications technology – mainly in the use of smartphones and tablets.

All of this is leading us to significant shifts in society, and it is all fuelled by innovations in communications devices. The smartphone and almost ubiquitous access to the internet have created a new baseline expectation in people that they will always be connected. I have often argued that with Twitter we are seeing the genesis of the hive mind of humanity.

The digital divide is no longer about access to technology – as my friend Mark Pesce notes, even poor fishermen in Kerala have access – it’s about your willingness or desire to be connected.

However, people are finding enormous utility in being always connected. For example, the number of ereaders in the hands of people is growing enormously, doubling since July 2011. And an example of a behavioural shift afforded by the technology is the growth in women’s erotic fiction sales. Romance novels have always been a big business globally, but a recent sales data indicates a substantial growth in sales of erotica (the so-called ‘guilty pleasures’ factor) that has been fuelled by the anonymity offered by ereaders.

As long ago as 2008 Australia mobile phone subscribers outnumber people according to ACMA data. This means that individuals have more than one device connected to the mobile phone network.

SOCIAL MEDIA, SOCIAL BUSINESS
Along with this embrace of ubiquitous mobile connectivity we have seen the growth of social media and social networking. This growth of social media is part of the landscape that makes up the digital revolution. Social media is revolutionary because it empowers the populace with access to the means of communication that were once the province of rich media barons.

This growth in social media fuelled by mobile connectivity has also changed the business landscape in important ways. There is a shift from command-control and pipeline driven businesses to social business that is focused on continuous engagement and conversations.

The kind of new business opportunities enabled by this digital revolution include:

  • the ability to compete in a new geography without even opening a local store (like Amazon);
  • the opportunity to reduce complexity for customers and remove friction from business operations (like Telstra);
  • subverting traditional models like recruitment where businesses build online talent banks of people who are interested in working with them (like Deloitte).

However, the shifts in society are not limited to business and consumers. They are also changing some things that we have always accepted. For example, we have always assumed that there is a just and valid separation between the domains of public versus private, or between business versus personal. But now those verities are being shaken by social media and social networking.

Social media is blurring the boundaries between the public, private, business, and personal. We are still working out how to negotiate this new territory. But already we see reports of people turned down for jobs because their online reputation score was too low.

We are now seeing a world where reputation is created, maintained, and mediated by online channels. There are increasing tools for measuring reputation online, such as: Kred, Klout, and Peer Index. Bouncers are even reportedly using Facebook as an identification check for entry into nightspots according to the BBC.

SOCIAL WORKPLACES
Workplaces are changing too, partly in response to the digital revolution. Open plan offices with collaboration spaces and hot desks are enabled because of wifi and portable connected devices like laptops and tablets.

SOCIAL EDUCATION
Our schools and places of education are being swept along by this digital revolution as well. With schools handing out laptops to all students and wifi in schools, libraries, and on public transport our children inhabit an always connected landscape. A teen boy said to me recently of my complaints about the poor wifi in Sydney: “but it’s just in the air, it’s everywhere”. It is a good example of the world that our young people inhabit. They live in a world where the connectivity is just ‘in the air’ around them.

The physical changes in workplaces are being reflected in schools too. They are becoming focused on collaboration rather than rote learning of facts. Students are learning how to discover, assess, and synthesize information rather than memorize facts.

WTF?
When we put together the shifting physical nature of the workplace and schools together with the blurring boundaries between public- private-business-personal, and the always connected devices in the hands of individuals many opportunities and challenges arise.

It is an exciting time to live. We are living through a revolution. The real question is will we drive the revolution or let it just happen to us?

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