Thesis 4: Social Media are the Third Millennium’s Defining Communications Trend

I don’t think this should really need lots of discussion and proof. In the era of Gutenberg and Luther, only the most profound works could be published via the printing press. Thus Luther’s 95 Theses and other works of eternal significance were candidates for mass distribution. Not much else was considered worthy of the expensive paper on which it would be printed.

And of course in those days mass distribution didn’t mean exactly universal distribution, but only to those who had the unusual opportunity and gift of literacy.

But even with limited literacy, Luther’s theses spread like a virtuous version of pandemic flu. They got people talking.

Over the ensuing 480 years or so, the ability to publish remained scarce and therefore precious. And for the last half century, there was a unique development in that a privileged class of editors and programmers could make tastes, and could decide what news was fit to print or worthy for airing.

So journalists attached to someone who owned a printing press, or (in the U.S.) an FCC-granted monopoly license, were unique in their ability to spread news and views to their community. News organizations sold their wares to consumers, or as Chris Anderson, Clay Shirky and others have noted, more accurately sold (or rented) their audiences to advertisers.

The economics of digital abundance and what Shirky calls unlimited perfect copyability, along with development of tools for self-publishing, means that we no longer are hostage to this privileged class. People like us can start a blog, or a podcast, or a YouTube channel that can be accessed from around the globe.

It doesn’t mean we necessarily have a huge audience for our views, but it does give us access, at least loosely based on merit, as judged by individuals instead of only the tastemakers.

The fact that only perhaps 10 percent of potential publishers actually avail themselves of these tools doesn’t lessen their significance.

In warfare the credible threat of force can be just as effective in accomplishing goals as the use of force is. Likewise, the fact that almost everyone has a digital camera at all times (thanks to the ubiquity of camera phones) means the potential cost of an organization treating someone badly is much higher.

In my presentations, I frequently illustrate this point with portions of the Social Media Revolution video, which begins with two questions:

Is social media a fad? Or is it the biggest shift since the Industrial Revolution?

While I agree the development of social media tools is as significant as anything since invention of the steam engine, the cotton gin and other outgrowths of the Industrial Revolution, I prefer to consider social media in the context of communications trends. In that regard, I believe it’s the biggest shift since Gutenberg. At least since Marconi.

In Thesis 3, I will discuss the anomalous (that’s a pretty sophisticated, Chancellor-like word, isn’t it?) nature of the mass media era, and why the era has ended, even as we continue to have mass media outlets in our communications ecosystem.

The fact that Gutenberg’s invention defined the 16th through the 19th centuries didn’t mean it completely replaced verbal communication. And broadcast media didn’t completely replace print in the 20th century. But each defined their era.

Likewise, social media define the Third Millenium, even though they haven’t (and won’t) completely replace mass media.

Meanwhile, here’s a screen shot from the Social Media Revolution video that puts it all in context in just a single frame:

Picture 8

If you have 4:22 to spare, here’s the video in its entirety:

So how do you answer those questions? To what would you compare the social media revolution?

4 thoughts on “Thesis 4: Social Media are the Third Millennium’s Defining Communications Trend”

  1. Lee – I’m perhaps not as willing as you to declare social media’s ascendancy into the ranks of Gutenberg and Television. We’re still in an early adopter mode; many people struggle to see why they should participate. I tell potential clients that their future customers expect to have access to social media, so I’m not saying we won’t get there, just that it’s premature to say that we are.

    If the theoretical underpinning of social media is two-way symmetry, then we are looking more at a cell phone than a television, with a series of personal interactions of the one-to-one rather than one-to-many type. At least, there will be manifestly more of those singular conversations than there are broadcast or publishing types (at least, that what I expect).

  2. Lee,

    I think Sean makes a great point that underpins the confusion about social media. It can be both, or more appropriately, include both and many other forms.

    I’ve settled into framing social media as people and tools as they relate to another environment (Internet) that mirrors the physical world because all physical forms of communication occur here: broadcast, one-on-one, billboards (banner ads), etc., etc. much like the physical world. Sometimes, these communication methods occur at virtually the same time such as reading this post, watching the video, and then perhaps chatting about any aspect of it via Twitter or Facebook or whatever.

    There certainly are some similarities to Gutenberg’s invention in that it changes communication. But I like Sean’s willingness to temper where we are on the timeline.

    With the advent of mobile integrated media (cell phones) and its potential to provide near seamless interconnectivity to the desktop and television, that will likely be the Gutenberg defining moment, e.g. one device that is only limited by where it docks.

    All my best,

  3. I don’t necessarily disagree with you Rich and Sean. I’m not saying social media are more important than TV currently. But I believe they are the defining communications trend of this millennium. That doesn’t mean the the other methods will be replaced by social media, but the existence of social media does define the media ecosystem.

    The ability for ordinary people to communicate mostly with their friends (very conveniently by the way), but also across vast distances and in a one-to-many and many-to-many model, combined with the potential for any of these conversations to flare up into a mass media, high-impact event, is something never seen before.

    And give it a little time to become obvious; we’ve still got 990 years left in the millennium! 😉

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