Working online I have come across ‘world changing’ technologies more times than I care to mention. The spread of computers was said it ‘would change the world’, email was hailed as a ‘communication breakthrough’ and the web itself was slated to ‘do away with national boundaries’. All of these have happened to some extent but the world did not change, it simply became different.
We used computers and connectivity to find different ways of working, for instance, so that we could work longer and harder, holding cybermeetings across timezones, outsourcing non-essential services to lower-cost economies. We used the web to hire virtual assistants to reduce office overheads and we each became entrepreneurs, using the virtual economy as our playground to set up new businesses, try different business models and pursue ideas which had been burning a hole in the back of our heads since the days before we could escape the nine-to-five cubicle hell.
While all of this changed something, it really changed nothing. Until now. Change is always defined by the unexpected. The thing no one can predict is always a good indicator of a fundamental we have missed. Social media has provided it. I can here, get a little banal, and explain how social media connects people and brands, it allows companies to become more responsive to their customers (and I know of several direct examples) and it empowers consumers to interact with the companies they like.
Social media has given real meaning to the words ‘brand ambassador’ and ‘audience interaction’. All of this we know and much of it we had forecast. It is not why social media is changing the world.
As you are reading this much of the Middle East is in the grip of what has been called ‘The Arab Spring’. Popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria are seeing trends for regime change and some form of democratization. This has been truly unexpected and it has been brought about by social media. Here are three reasons why:
1. Social Media connects. Once we overlook the functionality attributes and the ‘bells and whistles’ of every form of social media platform and social media channel we are left with their ability to help us do what human beings always do best: connect with each other. In the interaction there is a deep and often overlooked cross-fertilisation of ideas, thoughts and opinions. A true break down of national borders and cultural barriers. People in Pakistan get to see party pics from Frat Houses in the US. Repressed Tunisians find out, in passing, that UK wages are much higher for doing the same job. Egyptians freely talk to counterparts in the West and wonder why their lifestyles are so different.
I am painting here a picture with incredibly broad strokes but social change of the type we are witnessing in our times does not happen unless there is an accumulation of detail at a personal level which can bring about a tipping point which can reach critical mass in a national pool. Social media allows connection across billions of lives on a one-to-one basis in a way which is totally new.
2. Social Media connects. The connections social media allows us to make do not just run from the inside out (i.e. from a communications challenged society to the ‘free world’ and back) but also spread within. The Egyptian uprising would, arguably, have not taken place had not Facebook enabled groups of demonstrators within Egypt to communicate and become organised long before the authorities really understood what was happening. Social media has been instrumental in creating cohesion amongst disparate rebel groups in Libya and it has been used to communicate and get organized by the demonstrators in Syria. It has kept news and images coming out in real time, appearing on Twitter and Google+ and has maintained the world’s attention and momentum in movements which might otherwise have fizzed or been squashed by their own governments.
3. Social Media connects. The very heavily publicised, recent street riots in London and several other UK cities would have received neither the world media attention they did nor the public opinion debate which they started had not the use of social media had made it possible to securely organize them in the first place and then publicise them in the second. Social Media, like the spinning jenny, is changing an entire industry and, as the UK government reactions to it show, it has not failed to produce its own special brand of luddites.
Like most profound changes social media works at several different levels at once. For marketers and marketing it represents a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to foster true personal communication with their potential audience and market to them as you would market to friends. The opportunity is to finally leave the ‘clever gimmicks’ of advertising behind and put in place a marketing framework which works with simple truths.
For world leaders and governments it represents a genie which having granted their wish for communicating with their people during election campaigns is now refusing to go back in the lamp and is giving the very same power to the electorate. It is eroding communication barriers which allowed ‘controlled messages’ to be sent out and it is allowing the message to simply find its way through the noise.
For the individual social media represents a challenge when it comes to filtering out ‘noise’ and finding out what’s real but is also offers the opportunity to enjoy connectivity and interaction at an unprecedented level and with a newfound immediacy.
Where does that leave us now? The true impact of social media in marketing, communications, and gradual social change is something which I think we will not see until we see it. Much like ‘The Arab Spring’ change is happening right now in ways we cannot readily measure and therefore cannot predict. I was going to finish this article with a line on this “brave new world” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest but a quote from the last scene of The Matrix, is both a little more cheesy and better food for thought: “I know you're out there. I can feel you now. I know that you're afraid. You're afraid of us. You're afraid of change. I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. I'm going to hang up this phone, and then I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world … without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”