I gave a presentation yesterday on “The Brave New World of Social Media” to folks from small and large businesses that were attending a program at my firm’s Chicago office. Not surprisingly, my program title’s days are numbered, as more and more businesses take the plunge into social media.
Note that I didn’t refer to “social networking” in my title. In fact, during my presentation, I riffed for a moment on how that very term is redundant. Think about it. Still thinking? What if I proposed “antisocial networking” or perhaps even “existential networking”? You can see my point. [I can’t resist an aside here, though. Even typing “antisocial networking” brought up humorous visions of certain (and familiar) groups of professionals mingling — or not as the case would be — at a cocktail party. End of aside.]
It wasn’t the first time that I had talked to a group about social media, and it hopefully won’t be the last. What I’m often struck by, though, is how many people say to me, honestly and without an agenda, “I don’t really get it.” I’ve tried out a variety of responses to that question, and I still haven’t quite hit the sweet spot in my answer, judging from the only somewhat mollified looks that I receive from the inquistors.
What I usually say in answer to their mystification is something along the lines of, “Social media is yet another way to communicate with and interact with your friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, former classmates, sales prospects, etc., etc.”
“That’s great,” the questioners reply to me. “But why do I want to do that using social media? Can’t I just email them or call them? Even just text them if I’m feeling particularly tech savvy?”
Well, um, sure. You can also dig out your LPs and listen to them instead of your iPod. And sometimes, that’s even pretty cool. It’s why they still sell at least one turntable unit at your local Best Buy. People still ride horse-drawn carriages through Central Park, too. There is still sometimes a compelling reason to experience older technology (even no technology), whether it’s nostalgia or a momentary bout of feeding your inner Luddite.
In the case of social media, though, the turn of the conversation brings up a compelling issue: Is it not that we’ve created anything really new with blogs and Twitter and Facebook and the like, and is it rather that we merely have paved the way for greater accessibility and connectedness, things we already had in simple websites or cell phones? In other words, does all the hoopla over social media simply boil down to one simple thing: redundancy? After all, my wife and I don’t have to exchange Facebook postings to know what’s going on in each other’s lives. We can just Tweet each other. (OK, just kidding. We would just talk to each other over our laptops that constantly sit open at our kitchen table being used to surf the Internet and post to social media websites. True story, but we’re getting off track now.)
In the past, when there was a revolutionary new technology, it invariably was an entirely new medium. Mass circulation newspapers. Telephones. Radio. Television. Cable. Cell phones. The Internet. That’s just not the case with social media, although you wouldn’t know that to listen to some true believers. As I say in my prsentation: The medium is NOT the message this time.
This, indeed, is the revolutionary aspect to social media: Information is king, not the technology. We are finally witnessing whiz-bang technology start to take a back seat to the reasons why it was created in the first place. It’s an embodiment of Louis Sullivan’s famous line about “form following function.” With effective use of social media, we’re talking to each other, trading jokes and insults, sharing joy and sadness, selling services or products. The technology, based on existing platforms, merely facilitates what’s been going on for, well, millenia. So, yes, maybe social media (or networking) is a bit redundant when stripped down to its component parts and essential nature. But, as they say, the classics tend to endure.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why so many people don’t get it.