Let us take a moment to step back and examine why social media works, why it is going to stay and why it is going to improve the lives of everyone everywhere.
Now is a good time to do so as we are clearly on the verge of another huge leap forward in handling information online. Linked Data technologies are now becoming rapidly more widespread, and over the next few years, databases around the world will become more and more connected allowing more and more information to become available. This will allow people all over the world to do more things more quickly and more easily than ever before. It means more sharing than ever before and if social media is about anything at all then it is about sharing.
Social media works because it is not just one service but an entire set of technologies that are under constant development and subject to constant innovation. Collectively, they enable humans to communicate with other humans in the most human way we know how without having to be physically present. We can text, tweet, update statuses, Skype, send videos from the desktop and cameraphone, podcast, blog and so on. It is not just the elimination of time and the contraction of space rendered by the electronic connections and storage, but it is the flexibility of the medium as a whole that makes it so valuable. For every way we wish to communicate with someone we have a niche-like technical method to do it.
This ease of outreach increases the likelihood of easier, cleaner communication resulting in greater mutual understanding. Ideas become easier to share and are assimilated quickly and widely. Correspondingly, ideas that are no longer valid or fruitful fall by the wayside.
The tools that bring us these ideas are themselves in a constantly evolving ecosystem. Some social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are presently the kings of the jungle while others have faded away like Friendster and Bebo. Who knows what, in turn, will replace them? What we do know is that they will be replaced by something much better and more useful to us.
This Darwinian description makes the social media world sound like a group of living organisms rather than a bunch of servers in a warehouse somewhere running specific programs. The desire and need to communicate is the primeval force driving this group of technologies. It is an organic process where each iteration, while perhaps hailing the end of the life of one service provider, is in turn birthing a new, better focussed service provider.
One necessity will be for our services to connect with each other seamlessly: allowing us to take our conversations from format to format as we see fit. This increasing universality is taking leaps and bounds to the ultimate destination of the system as a whole – to produce a single mind for the world. A mind with no barrier to communication found in separate entities. A mind that in one sense sounds Borg-like. But I would say that we will have the opportunity to access the combined sum total of human ingenuity. All our good ideas shared and available for everyone. Think about how much could be possible.
In a WSJ article Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist, outlines the idea of the collective mind. He suggests that with the trading of goods, our ancestors quickly, if not simultaneously, started trading ideas. Once enough people were engaged in enough of these exchanges a collective mind takes form where “ideas are having sex with each other as never before”. And these ideas are not only having sex, but breeding faster than bunny rabbits.
This is what we have now with social media: no, not lots of bunny rabbits having sex, but lots of ideas being shared as they have never been shared before on an even grander and but yet more immediate scale. One metric I would love to see analyzed would be derived from the question “How much more, through using social media on a given day, would you know at the end of the day then at the beginning of it?” All sorts of weighted numerics could be applied to measure the responses but I am sure for most people the simple answer and direct answer would be “a lot”.
The potential for social media as a tool for learning is as significant a step forward in human development as the formation of the great universities in medieval Europe and even the printing press itself. So many different and diverse ideas can come together, rub up together, feed off each other and as a result, create brand new ideas so easily and so quickly that there is no question that we are in the middle of a mighty change. A change in the amount of what we know and how we come to know it. A change in how the world can come to know itself.
Social media is here to stay because it can adapt to fulfill the needs of its users. This won’t be down to one company. We know that once companies become corporatised they become slow, even reluctant to adapt. They become more interested in perpetuating themselves then serving their customers, little realising that the only way to survive is to find ways of serving one’s customers better. New companies with new ideas to fill the communication gaps and niches of opportunity which will come into existence while others will fade into irrelevance. Social media is not about an individual company, it is a self-perpetuating ecosystem or as Ridley puts it, a collective mind, that can – through the participation of the many – change shape as needs be to provide better substance, nominally the ability to facilitate communication.
Because we are now enabled to communicate more naturally with each other across time and space we can see that naturalness taking on an organic nature. Social media is more than a collection of technologies, it is a living thing. Like all successful living things it has built into its function the ability to adapt. It is this adaptive and flexible approach that will not only ensure its survival but ensure its growth.