Only a few decades ago, before Twitter or Facebook, before MySpace or LiveJournal, and before Google or Yahoo or the Internet, there was no such thing as social media shared by the people. At the time, the only media that mattered was the mass media ruled and regulated by television, radio, and newspapers. Still, the first hints of shared social media might be printed “letters to the editor”.
Although print-based “letters to the editor” have been around for centuries, they were naturally filtered. According to Wikipedia: “The letters chosen for publication usually are only a sample of the total letters submitted… Editors generally… reject letters that include profanity, libelous statements, personal attacks against individuals or specific organizations… or that are submitted anonymously.”
Nowadays, filtered and unfiltered tweets, blogs, posts, and statuses shared by almost anyone and everyone are taken for granted in our social reality. So I wonder if the centuries-old metaphysical exercise — “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” — has finally evolved into — “If a tree falls in a forest and no one tweets about it, does it really happen?”
If no one tweets about it, does it really happen?
What the heck am I talking about? In other words, sharing your thoughts, feelings, photos, and lives with the online world can be interpreted as an effort to declare or enforce your perceived reality or existence — not only on a personal level, but also on a professional and an organizational level. For example, if you’re not a celebrity and don’t share any social-media activity, do you really exist?
This might sound ridiculous, but in the business world, your company’s social-media presence or absence can make or break its success. If you’re using your smartphone to search for a new Thai or Japanese restaurant nearby, but it doesn’t have a Yelp or Facebook or Google presence, how can you find it? In that precious moment, if you can’t find it anywhere online, does it really exist?
Why should we care about our social-media presence?
Certainly, a few decades ago, the idea of owning an online existence might’ve been acceptable in science-fiction novels. But nowadays, the idea of owning your social-media presence is becoming as commonplace as owning your home or vehicle or business, to the point where not having some online presence might represent a negative social characteristic as unpopular as being homeless.
Not only does your online social activity enable you to “declare or enforce your perceived reality or existence”, it also forms a part — just as your offline social activity forms a part — of your entire social existence. Never before has technology allowed your social existence to expand or explode to such global proportions. Through YouTube or Twitter, you can connect with millions if not billions.
Speaking of Twitter, is there a social danger?
In terms of sociopolitical and socioeconomic disruptions, Twitter-based microblogging or any other social-media platform poses no more and no less of a social threat than any other technological breakthrough like the automobile, television, and Internet. Here are a few “I Tweet, Therefore I Am” articles that range from depressing to inspiring. Oddly, you can still retweet the anti-tweet articles.
- I Tweet Therefore I Am (14 May 2010)
Twitter’s simplicity is part of its brilliance. The ability to interpret, analyze and in turn, predict behavior, currently sets it apart from most other social networks. Twitter has become a human seismograph, measuring and broadcasting the pulse of not just the Web, but also world and local events. News no longer breaks, it Tweets. And if you’re plugged-in to the human seismograph, you are part of a movement, one that defines trends and distributes information before the rest of the reverberations are felt across the rest of the world. You become part of the new information system.
- I Tweet, Therefore I Am (30 Jul 2010)
Back in the 1950s, the sociologist Erving Goffman famously argued that all of life is performance: we act out a role in every interaction, adapting it based on the nature of the relationship or context at hand. Twitter has extended that metaphor to include aspects of our experience that used to be considered off-set: eating pizza in bed, reading a book in the tub, thinking a thought anywhere, flossing.
- I Tweet Therefore I Am: Life in the Halls of Mirrors (05 Sep 2012)
But one of the most troubling consequences of devoting so much attention to the virtual world is the death of empathy. Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, told the New York Times that empathy is essential to the human condition. However, given the virtualization of the real world, and tendency for many to multitask, “we are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”
- I tweet, therefore I am… (07 Mar 2014)
The flipside to all this is that those who live their lives authentically and honestly online seem more willing than ever to consume utter bullshit. The quick-share nature of social media ensures that any “awesome”, “inspiring” or “heartbreaking” photo or “article” is given only the briefest consideration before it is reblogged and tweeted to kingdom come, despite the extraordinary level of access to actual information we enjoy online.
Where is social media leading us?
I have no idea where social-media and socio-mobile technology will lead us. But if the proliferation of wearable devices like Google Glass and Samsung Gear is any indication, I wouldn’t be surprised if, within a decade, putting on your social-media presence — without the need of keyboards — will feel as natural as putting on your favorite pair of blue jeans. You’d probably feel naked without it.
In the meantime, you can find a wide variety of tidal activity splashing the open social-media seas. For example, here are a few sample articles that range from the endless list of platforms, to the vast minority of silent Twitter users, to the declining population of Facebook teenagers, to the confusing etiquette of LinkedIn networking. What’s the common theme? That we’re still learning how to swim.
- Top 52 Social Media Platforms Every Marketer Should Know (09 Apr 2010)
Whether you’re accessing your social media platform from a desktop or a smartphone, it’s important to be familiar with all of them. With that in mind, below is a list of the top 52 social media platforms. They’re broken into 3 categories — social media platforms that help you network (like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.); social media platforms that help you promote (like YouTube, blogs, etc.); and social media platforms that help you share (like Digg, Delicious, etc.).
As many as 44 percent tweeples have never pressed the tweet button on their micro-blogging website… The fact was revealed by a report filed by Twopcharts, a firm monitoring Twitter usage… According to the report, most of the Twitter users prefer to stay dormant and follow the news and various Twitter debates taking place around prominent Twitter trends… As per the statistics, 30 percent of the accounts have sent 1-10 Tweets, only 13 percent have tweeted more than 100 times… At present, there are more than 214 million active users. An active user was defined as a person who logs into his Twitter account at least once a month.
So where are all the young people going?… Teens and young adults don’t want mom commenting on their status. They don’t want the mundane updates they see and hear everyday at school. They don’t want ads… Instead, they’d rather be expressing themselves through photos or videos without the clutter of ads and annoyance from their parents… Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram all saw boosts in popularity, while Facebook showed decline. Snapchat, in particular, grew from under million snaps per day in May of 2012, with more than 140 million as of April 2013. Similarly, Instagram and Tumblr have seen massive growth with Instagram gaining 60 million followers over 2013 and Tumblr quickly reaching a userbase of 47.49 million (which has since slowed).
- The do’s and don’ts of LinkedIn etiquette (13 Apr 2014)
With 277 million users, LinkedIn is the go-to site for professional networking. But despite the social platform’s growing popularity, confusion about its rules and etiquette abound… Case in point: In February, job-seeker Diana Mekota, 26, made news when she requested to connect with Kelly Blazek, the manager of a Cleveland job bank through which Mekota hoped to land a gig. Blazek responded with a vitriolic rejection note (in part reading, “Your invite to connect is inappropriate . . . and tacky”) that went viral.
What are my final thoughts?
Let’s rewind to my original metaphysical question — “If a tree falls in a forest and no one tweets about it, does it really happen?” Amusingly, my use of the word “rewind” no longer has any practical meaning in our socio-mobile age of extinct videotapes, disappearing DVDs, and instant streaming. This social-media post — and everything linking to and from it — lives, breathes, and swims online.
There’s no question that our online social activity forms a part of our total social reality. Whether a MadCap Software evangelist retweets my tweet or French gamer at Jeuxvideo links to my blog, our social reality is no longer necessarily filtered by mass media or necessarily trapped by technological limitations. Like writing and printing “letters to the editor” centuries ago — “I share, therefore I am.”
Do I have an update?
Less than a week after I posted this blog entry, I stumbled across an intriguing tweet.
- Things that have been around a lot longer than you think (24 Apr 2014)
According to an article published by The Wall Street Journal, “social media” was actually created by ancient Romans, since they had a complex network for sharing updates and gossip using letters. Writer Tom Standage explains “in place of broadband, which makes copying and sending information cheap and quick today, the Romans had scribes and messengers, many of whom were slaves.” Specifically we may have Roman philosopher Cicero to thank as the article posits that he “may have invented social media.”
So I decided to take a peek at what The Wall Street Journal article had to say.
At the time there were no printing presses and no paper. Instead, information circulated among the intermarried families of the Roman elite through the exchange of papyrus rolls. The ruling class was well-educated and literate. And in place of broadband, which makes copying and sending information cheap and quick today, the Romans had scribes and messengers, many of whom were slaves…
Letters were commonly shared and quoted in other letters. Some were addressed to several people and were intended to be read aloud, or posted in public. Similarly, when Cicero or another politician made a noteworthy speech, he would distribute it by making copies available to his associates, who would read it and pass it on to others. Many more people might then read the speech than had heard it being delivered in person.
Books circulated in the same way, as sets of papyrus rolls passed from one reader to the next. Anyone who wished to keep a copy of a speech or book would have it copied by scribes before passing it on. People in Rome also sent their friends excerpts from the acta diurna, or state gazette. It was posted in the Forum each day and contained official announcements and summaries of political debates.
If we compare this interpretation to the Wikipedia definition, the WSJ article misses the point.
- Wikipedia: Social media (02 May 2014)
Social media is the interaction among people in which they create, share or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks… Social media differ from traditional or industrial media in many ways, including quality, reach, frequency, usability, immediacy, and permanence.
Even if we ignore the “virtual” factor, the WSJ article still misses the point of “immediacy”. The core concept isn’t the publication or distribution of a single letter, speech, or book to the ancient masses, because that’s how typical modern mass-media news is propagated. Instead, the core concept is that with social media, the receivers of that news can directly reply or retweet back to the source.
I doubt that an ancient Syrian commoner could reply to a member of the Roman ruling-class elite. Naturally, I still think that the first hints of social media might be printed “letters to the editor”. :)
Meanwhile, to keep up with Twitter’s new profile design, I decided to revisit a few accounts.