The following post is from a talk I gave at the Gov 2.0 lunch on Monday 31 May 2010 at Parliament House in Canberra.
The internet is a strange beast; it is everywhere and nowhere all at once. Unlike traditional media – with its registered offices, chief editors, and boards of directors etc. – the internet is amorphous yet powerful – and it is still only a teenager. And it is changing the face of human communication in ways we are only just beginning to understand.
As a business person and former public servant I can see the organisational challenges thrown up by the digital revolution. As marketer I adore the power of the digital revolution for marketing and communications. As a technologist I find the democratisation of technology world-changing. And as a citizen I wonder how this will all affect my world.
The digital revolution is manifesting changes in social behaviour and consumer expectations and this has implications for service delivery and communications in both business and government.
Let us firstly consider how the rate of technology change is increasing and how adoption is becoming faster. We can see that the rate of change is increasing in these examples :
- Radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users
- Television took 13 years to reach 50 million users
- The Internet took 4 years to reach 50 million users
- The iPod took 3 years to reach 50 million users
- And the iPod reached 1B application downloads in 9 months .
Now let us consider Facebook  , which is probably the most mainstream of the social networks in the western world. If Facebook was a country it would be the fourth largest in the world:
- Facebook currently has more than 400 million users
- About 50% of those users login each day
- The average user has about 130 friends
- There are approximately 500 billion minutes of time per month spent on Facebook
- More than 70% users are located outside the United States
- More than100 million users are currently accessing Facebook via mobile devices
- The fastest growing segment on Facebook is women 55-65 years of age
Don’t forget China has Qzone (from Tencent Inc.) which is growing at a similar rate to Facebook on their first quarter report :
- Active Instant Messaging (“IM”) user accounts increased 8.7% QoQ to 568.6 million
- Peak simultaneous online user accounts for IM services increased 13.2% QoQ to 105.3 million
- Active user accounts of Qzone increased 10.4% QoQ to 428.0 million
- Peak simultaneous online user accounts of QQ Game portal (for mini casual games only) increased 9.7% QoQ to 6.8 million
- IVAS paying subscriptions increased 16.1% QoQ to 59.9 million
- MVAS paying subscriptions increased 14.8% QoQ to 23.3 million”
The behavioural changes that sites like Facebook and Qzone are creating in ordinary people are vast. Everyday large numbers of non-technically skilled people are actively engaging in the online social communication and sharing of images, links, and videos with friends, groups, and events. They are engaging with software and becoming skilled at use largely without the support of technical support. They are using technology to mediate their social communications in a way that was not possible only a few years ago. The technology has become democratised and the barriers to participation lowered drastically.
Now let us consider Twitter . While it is much smaller than Facebook, Twitter does have a very different focus and its use case is very different. While Facebook is about who you already know, Twitter is about who or what you don’t know yet.
Some basic facts about Twitter  include:
- Twitter has more than 75 million users
- It distributes more than 50 million tweets per day
- And there are between 10-15 million active users
Increasingly Twitter is the home of breaking news – some good examples of this from 2009 are the place crash in the Hudson River in New York, the Chinese earthquake, and the Iranian revolution. Journalists are now lurking there instead of the pub to get tips. All around the world Twitter is becoming entwined with mainstream news providers, with tweets showing on screen during telecasts (for example, the Q and A program Australia’s ABC).
And some more interesting facts that demonstrate how intertwined social media platforms and technology are becoming into our everyday lives include:
- YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world
- Wikipedia inadvertently crushed earlier competitors and now has more than 13 million articles with 78% of those non-English languages
- 80% of companies in the United States use LinkedIn to find staff
Another feature of social technology is that it is not tied to the computer; it is becoming mobile. For example, Generation Y and Z do not use email except to talk to old people like us (as my university students told me so kindly) or to institutions like school or university. Their preferred medium is text messaging via mobile or instant messaging via data networks.
What we are seeing is a shift in behaviours – it is not that certain behaviours are ceasing. Instead they are moving into a social networking context. For example, social network traffic now exceeds traffic to adult sites; it also exceeds email traffic . Not because either adult content or email are disappearing, but because these activities are moving location into a social networking context.
Additionally, we are now seeing the emergence of physical location based social networks. Grindr, Gowalla and Foursquare are some new entrants. Also sites like Facebook are working on adding location based functionality to their offering. This is bringing physical presence into the social network experience enabling serendipitous meetings in real life. Thus physical presence is now becoming part of our digital matrix. And this leads to the new digital divide. As I’ve said for a while: “The willingness and desire to be hyperconnected via technology will become the new generation gap.”
This is a social media ecosystem that is interlinked and hyperconnected in ways that old media did not enable. The desire to connect was always there in humans but the technology did not support the desire. Now people can be connected constantly and ambiently – and this continuous electronic presence is a new stage in human relations.
For each of us there is a myriad of data points about us out there on the internet. It’s like an impressionist painting, one dot tells nothing but many dots create an artwork, or in the case of our data many data points tell the story of our lives.
As with many other innovations the social web is here and now we’re trying to work out how to (a) Use it; (b) Regulate it; and (c) Police it.
We’ve made good progress on how to use the social web from a personal perspective. But business and government are just starting to understand how it might be possible to use it. However, regulation and policing of the new social web is under fierce debate around the world. For example the various internet censorship moves in Australia, France, China, and North Korea. Also, as Danah Boyd commented, Facebook is a utility and that those tend to get regulated.
Some of the key issues that need to be debated and resolved include:
- Ownership of personal data
- Law – copyright, intellectual property, defamation
These are all important from a personal, business and government perspective. Without clarity on these issues we face continued debate and uncertainty and this is never a good thing for business or government.
Another key thing is infrastructure – that is why Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) is a brilliant thing. For those who can’t see why we need one it is worth remembering that nobody could see the purpose in having a fax machine before it was in use, and in the early days of computing some people saw the need for only a few computers in the world. If we build it, then the business and commercial opportunities will come. And not to build it means that Australia will become the digital poor relation in Asia.
The internet is now the largest word of mouth transmission mechanism humanity has ever seen. It amplifies communication in ways we are only just beginning to understand. And its immediacy and reach have irrevocably changed the communications landscape. Some of the changes in consumption patterns that arise from the digital revolution are about realtime expectations.
Changes in consumption patterns mean that we no longer consume media when publishers want us to. We do it when we want, on whatever device we choose, and on our own terms.
Let’s also look at some simple everyday behaviour. Who reaches first for the hard copy phone book to find a business anymore? Hardly anyone uses their old fashioned paper phone directory anymore.
Where are all of your personal contacts stored now? For many of us contacts are stored in our mobile phones or in our email accounts. But also many people are finding that their personal contacts are in their preferred social networks, and for many sites like LinkedIn or Plaxo store business contacts.
Social networking is crashing the degrees of separation between individuals. Even between the governed and their governors the degrees of separation are being crunched. People are having conversations with the Prime Minister, Opposition Leader, State Premiers, and their local councillors via social networks such as Twitter. This unprecedented access to people in authority is changing the demands on the organisations that support them. Previously letters went to a Minister and into the carefully crafted ministerial system. Responses were considered and carefully crafted according to predetermined service level agreements. Now the potential response needs to be turned around within minutes. This is a seismic shift in communications and in the demands upon organisations.
Expectations of response times are dropping. Have you ever had a phone call or text message asking why you’ve not responded to an email that just arrived? That expectation is now on steroids due to the growth in realtime web. Delayed gratification is becoming a thing of the past.
We are moving into an expectation of realtime responses from service providers. This is evident in TV shows – now we no longer wait until a show arrives for showing in Australia, we just download it and watch it whenever we want. Anyone who has teenagers has seen their internet download limit chewed up via this kind of immediate consumption behaviour.
The technology (including mobile) is shifting the notion of what form an acceptable communication takes. Now people receive confirmation of bill payments made or alerts about bills due for payment via text message to their mobile phones. Businesses are now embracing these new channels, with banks and airlines sending information via SMS as well as email. They are also building iPhone applications in their droves – for example most Australian banks have either launched or are building an iPhone banking application.
The modern Australian user is increasingly consuming media on a mobile device. The shift will continue as lower cost devices become available. Apple changed the game entirely with their iPhone and now the rest of the pack is playing catch up. There are also new entrants to the mobile game like Google.
The social web is not going away. It is going mobile. It is going realtime. We need to find ways to engage and deliver services using the social web that work for our constituents.
 Source of these statistics is http://www.youtube.com/user/Socialnomics09 video dated 30 July 2009
 Source of the Facebook data is http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics at 30 May 2010
 Source Tencent Inc. 2010 First Quarter Results http://www.tencent.com/en-us/content/at/2010/attachments/20100512.pdf at 30 May 2010
 Tweet statistics are from http://blog.twitter.com/2010/02/measuring-tweets.html at 30 May 2010
 Twitter user numbers are from http://themetricsystem.rjmetrics.com/2010/01/26/new-data-on-twitters-users-and-engagement/#more-1430 at 30 May 2010
 Source Hitwise http://weblogs.hitwise.com/robin-goad/2009/01/social_networks_overtake_adult_websites.html and http://weblogs.hitwise.com/to-go-ap/2008/05/social_networks_the_new_email.html at 30 May 2010
 Danah Boyd, http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2010/05/15/facebook-is-a-utility-utilities-get-regulated.html at 30 May 2010