We saw it coming. It was long overdue. It was whispering in the shadows, so ready to break out…
Our computers got smaller. Our phones: cordless, mobile. Home computers sneaked into houses, offices and bedrooms. We were there when the first hesitant steps on the social web were set. We met in the BBS hot tub, our modems were zooming and rattling. We attended internet billboards. By the end of the eighties, we were so into Internet relay chats, (IRCs).
In 1997, we were intrigued by the first social media site, Six Degrees. In 1999 blogging began in earnest. With the new millennium, came the new toys: MySpace and LinkedIn became popular. Photobucket and Flickr all of the sudden made online photo sharing easy. YouTube was there in 2005, creating not only a new community around video, but a new way to communicate.
By 2006, Facebook and Twitter –discovered at SXSW- started their blizz to the top. Niche networks like Pinterest, Tumblr, Spotify, Foursquare Pinterest and countless others popped up like there was no tomorrow.
The early posse
Working in strategic communication and feeling proud as a peacock with my blog at that time, I could start to see some early birds generating the biggest part of the conversation that became ‘social media’. Doc Searls, Chris Brogan, Deb Schultz, Stowe Boyd, Scot Monty, Robert Scoble, Christopher Barger, the young Jeremiah Owyang, Jay Rosen, Shel Israel, Chris Shipley, Stephanie Agresta –launching the famous SXSW blogger lounge in 2008-, Brian Solis, and Guy Kawasaki, just to name a few.
We were ninjas. Influencers. Rainmakers. Visionaries. Revolutionists. We jumped on soapboxes, and ruined our voices, screaming out how exciting, new, intriguing, democratic, powerful, and full of potential it all was. We listened to each other, and nodded. We amplified our friends. We spiralled our way into the spotlight of social media. This – no doubt- would change the world. And it did.
In 2007 the energetic Brian Solis stirred the buzzing beehive. His analytic mind wanted structure, purpose, definition. He wanted to document, to guide. To define what was, and what was –clearly- not. Polling into the first swarm of influencers, and through endless heroic comment sessions on early blogs, he pulled a first, hesitant definition of social media out of his savant hat:
Any tool or service that uses the internet to facilitate conversations.
Social Media is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism, one-to-many, to a many-to-many model, rooted in conversations between authors, people, and peers.”
The rose on the gun
We so wanted this new thing to be a thing for good. The sentiment I remember of those early days was that there now was a throbbing new channel, next to corporate driven PR -powered by reputation-, and brand driven media –powered by ROI (mostly sales). Social Media, as a third channel would be all about interaction. Engagement. Giving people a platform to express and influence.
In 2007, the same Brian Solis came up with the phrase that captured my exact feeling. I’ve been admiring his knack of capturing the moment and making sense of it ever since:
“Monologue has given way to dialog”
“Social media has created a new layer of influencers. It is the understanding of the role people play in the process of not only reading and disseminating information, but also how they in turn, share and also create content for others to participate. This, and only this, allows us to truly grasp the future of communications” said Brian Solis on his blog in early 2007.
Content is the new democracy
“The socialization of information and the tools that enable it are the undercurrent of social media and ultimately the social economy”, he continued, just before hammering the nail in: “Content is the new democracy and we the people, are ensuring that our voices are heard.”
“What we’re talking about here is how companies will best manage an integrated communications strategy in the not too distant future. It is about putting the “public” back in Public Relations and realizing that focusing on important markets and influencers will have a far greater impact than trying to reach the masses with any one message or tool. Social will become a critical factor in the success or failure of any business.” I remember the words that summed it all up: “Engage or die”.
Solis – and most of us- were convinced that it would now all be about conversations. He dotted down a couple of early, but extremely potent and powerful statements:
- It’s about conversations
- The best communicators start as the best listeners.
- This is where the future of communications takes shape.
- It all starts with respect.
- Listening is marketing.
- Participation is marketing.
- Media is marketing.
- Conversations are marketing.
- Comments are marketing.
Combining PR techniques with traditional marketing, conversational marketing, participatory marketing… Brian was convinced it would be the breeding ground for s dynamic relationships. Most of us still do.
Solis saw the role of the community manager as a powerful interactor for the brand: “the company ear to the ground in order to determine where the conversations are taking place and where they should participate. They are on the front lines of listening and engaging in conversations across the Web.”
The early posse… we were all convinced that social media would be a step on for brands to communicate, rather than the endless firing of media “messages”.
The power of money
But we had underestimated the dramatic gargantuan power of money.
Our beloved platforms, one by one, died out –lack of funding. Others IPO’ed, and sold their body and soul to the grinding power of the advertising and media industry. It feels like the art of engagement and conversation became a fierce guerrilla fighting in the suburbs of the world dominating Social Platforms. In boardrooms all over the planet, Social Media turned into a fat extra line that could deliver upon the traditional media KPI’s. (I call it the Four Horses of Social Apocalypse): Reach, Frequency, Cost Per Contact, Opportunities To See.
Benefit by design
Soon, it became clear that the way the machine started to operate was miles away from our –maybe naïve- but certainly very benevolent vision. The very structure of the networks was built to entangle the users, to make them spend more time online. The Facebook like button proved to be even more addictive that the arm of the one armed Jack, the Vegas slot machines that ruined countless lives.
Brands and agencies ended up threating our beloved communication platforms as some exotic kind of intelligent digital billboard. Brands that had invested in a viral building of a thriving community could now not reach their fans any more without paying. Countless social media users were all of the sudden locked in their networks.
Brian on the soapbox
Seeing Brian Solis on his soapbox again this year at SXSW, both made me proud, as it did hurt deep inside. The tool I believed in, is partially broken. And it is personal. I look at it, and I see Social Media, like so many teenagers “on drugs”. And there, opening the very depth of his heart and soul is Brian Solis: “I had the privilege of earning a featured session at SXSW this year. Instead of using it as a platform to promote my work, I wanted to raise awareness around a topic I’m passionate about.
Our phones, apps, social networks, are designed to seduce us, suck us in, using many design techniques that are tied to addiction. It’s not only robbing us of time that could go toward more productive investments, we’re investing in facades that cause others to either “live their best life” and/or feel less about themselves.
But, it doesn’t stop there. The same design techniques are being applied to news and information on the right, middle and left. And of course, there are the bots and fake news networks who’ve figured out how to exploit our fears and passion points.”
Brian brought a “J’accuse!” from the bottom of his heart. I’m still digesting it. He opened a can of worms so dominant that it prevents him of writing.
Healing starts with the knowledge it’s somewhere, somehow broken. Broken –for us optimists- means it can be fixed, altered, nudged, hammered into working again. Can the commerce rollercoaster be combined with our interactive dream?
More importantly: Brian, are you game?