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In God we trust – all others pay cash (part 3)

June 21, 2010

In a previous post, I kicked off a series that’s going to consider the impact social media (SM) might be having on society and culture by way of comparison to an earlier phenomenon: the shift to a monetary economy (sometimes referred to as the profit economy) in Europe during the Medieval period. In the last post, I looked briefly at the elements of this shift that I think are relevant to the shift to SM going on today: transparency, immediate vs. extended impact, and the jump from one area of activity to others.

In this post, I’ll finish the series by looking at how these three elements are at play in the emergence of SM.


Transparency is critical to the widespread adoption of a technology or process. The less it interrupts the way you live your life everyday and the more seamlessly it fits into how you do things now, the more likely it is that the technology or process will become a part of everyday life and “how things work”.

In terms of the transparency of SM, just think about your own experience on Facebook or LinkedIn. You begin by wondering why in the world someone would use this tool everyday, or even every week. But slowly, over the course of time, as you dive in and explore the functionality and discover the typical use cases (updating status, checking in on your network, searching for and connecting with others, exploring the extended connections you have access to through your network, and so on), the tool becomes more and more a part of your life. And one day, before you know it, it’s a central part of how you do things every day–and this sets the stage for the kind of significant cultural footprint we’ve seen SM develop over the last few years.

Immediate vs. extended impact

It goes without saying that SM has had a tremendous immediate impact on our culture and behavior–even the SM nay-sayers don’t dispute that. But where folks do disagree is on the long-term impact of SM. And although we’re too close to the shift to be able to accurately gauge this, I think that given the similarities we’ve seen between the rise of SM to the rise of other culturally significant phenomena (the codex, printing press, the computer, the Internet), it would be shocking if SM didn’t impact our culture and behavior in analogous ways.

All this doesn’t mean our predictions about the impact will be correct (check out this image from a 1963 issue of Popular Science), but even if they’re wrong in general, I think we can still be certain that the impact will be substantial.

Jump from one area of activity to others

SM began as a way to help you connect (or reconnect) with people and it’s been mind-bogglingly successful at enabling that. And if that was all SM did, it would be an unqualified success…but it would hardly be the phenomenon it’s become in the last two years. In large part, SM has gone beyond simply being a way to connect or reconnect with people to encompass a much wider (and ever expanding)set of activities. This expansion beyond its initial context, which shows no signs of stopping or letting up, is a big part of why SM will eventually have such an impact on our culture and behavior.

In terms of the way social media has jumped from one area of activity to another, we’ve seen a range of examples over the last 18 months of how successful social media has been at this. From smart grids (using the information that utilities customers share about their behaviors and preferences to crowdsource management of the power grid), to social media for the enterprise, apps related to media and entertainment properties (like NBC or CNN), as well as crowdsourced disaster response (for example during the elections in Iran and the BP spill)–it would have been difficult to predict any of these as viable uses for SM three years ago (again, think of that Popular Science image of Tomorrow’s Man), but today these have all become expected uses of SM.

The final word

In the end, my goal in these three posts has been to take a bit of a longer, historical perspective on the SM phenomenon. I think we’ve seen that SM is hardly the first technology to change the world–it’s got antecedents going back two thousand years and more (as we saw for the introduction of the codex). But by looking at these earlier phenomena, I think we can argue more intelligently for and against the real value, impact, and meaning of SM…and I look forward to hearing what folks think on the subject. As always: let’s get the conversation going…

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