Reflection: The Transformative Nature of Social Media

What do people mean when they say that social media has “transformed our lives”? You hear this statement all the time, but I wanted to stop for a minute and think about what that really means to human beings—to the way we actually think and live.

Changes in Our Values

Some people think we’re reaching a singularity with social networking sites. I recently discovered a truly innovative thinker—Jonathan Harris from Cowbird. Cowbird is a small community of storytellers, focused on a deeper, longer-lasting, more personal kind of storytelling than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the Web. Cowbird allows you to keep a beautiful audiovisual diary of your life, and to collaborate with others in documenting the overarching “sagas” (themes and events that touch millions of lives) that shape our world today.

Jonathan talks about four trends he feels need to be considered and counteracted.

1. Compression and speed – Society has consistently changed expectations about the speed with which things occur. We’ve gone from postal mail to email to faxes, and are now hovering at the edge of a Tweet. Jonathan believes we should step back and begin, instead, to deepen the conversation and the information we share.

2. Disposability – So much is wasted and discarded, and we all seem to be complicit in recognizing all content as ephemeral and replaceable. The Internet is of the moment, of the novel. Jonathan thinks we should focus more on the lasting, the timeless.

3. Curation – We’ve increasingly started expressing ourselves through the efforts of others, rather than creating ourselves. We post the work of others to our newsletters, to our Pinterest boards, and by sharing, avoid the act of creation ourselves. Jonathan favors creating our own art.

4. Self Promotion – Life online can become a kind of advertisement that we craft to make ourselves look a certain way. We can embrace this “ideal” to the extent that insecurity and anxiety about our actual, true selves results. In this process, we don’t turn to contemplative self reflection. Jonathan thinks we should do more of that.
It’s a lot to think about, but worth our consideration.

Changes in How We Are Influenced, and How We Influence Others

How our definition of “peers” has grown, not just friends but legions (As on the game show Millionnaire, we value the group answer, and we pay attention to the crowd’s opinion.) It intrigues me to think that we do place such a high value on what others think. While I wouldn’t care much what a group of, say, 20 people thinks, I am swayed by the numbers on Amazon reviews, or Modcloth, or Yelp. I do pay attention to the group opinion on Quirky or Firestarter. I do like to take the group temp of the comments on Quora or Harvard Business Review. It’s not just me; the vote is in. We do pay attention to peers when they are speaking in unison in large numbers.

Changes in Business

Think about the way you used to make a purchase decision 10 years ago, and compare that to how you make a buying decision today. Well, businesses are moving toward that model, too. Only the biggest enterprises choose products and services by committee, with request-for-proposal processes and long, complex buying arcs. Now the CEO is likely to be well-versed enough in technology to understand what he is buying, and to move at a different pace to integrate it into his business (with helpful recommendations from peers, of course). And he’s going to start his research on his own, not by calling in your sales team. By the time he’s on your radar and ready to talk to your team, he’s probably 70% of the way through, and has cemented his perceptions about your company—unless your team has been monitoring and listening, in which case they may have a leg up.

No More Silos

Can you imagine that even a few years ago, any three departments in one company would consider themselves to be on the same team, without walls? Today, diverse teams work collaboratively, moving into and out of each other’s spheres fluidly. They now have collaboration tools to keep connected and current.

Social is a company-wide effort, or it should be. The genie is out of the bottle. Your employees and your customers and the thought leaders and the trolls are all playing together in the same sandbox. You could even argue that “transparency” got adopted so quickly as a buzzword and a business strategy because there is simply no manageable alternative to it. We’re uncorked; nothing else except flat-out nakedness makes sense at the speed of social.

The “Unfair Advantage”

If you know how to listen, social media is almost like having a super-computer at your beck and call. If you’re clever, you use it to monitor all the places you want to be. It’s like being a fly on the wall in the smoke-filled rooms politicos frequent, or a competitor’s office. Sometimes it almost seems ninja-like—and even a bit unfair—that the smart people can slice and dice the social universe, and find treasure everywhere.

The Best Part

Of course, the biggest treasure is the wondrous variety of people you can meet. There’s something very satisfying about having access to the thoughts and opinions of people you admire. Isn’t it surprising? Isn’t it enriching? And what people you meet! Whether in communities or forums, on Twitter, on LinkedIn, on Facebook—all the sites—it’s a constant source of pleasure to witness the rich diversity of people’s lives, to share the spark of their imaginations, to listen to the music of their voices.

There’s something magical about connecting with people just mind to mind, where trappings don’t matter. Where nobody cares if you didn’t have a good hair day or you’re wearing you kneesprung pants and have baby spit-up on your shoulder. It’s …democratic. It’s a kind of freedom. A liberation from stereotypes. Transformative.

Of all the changes “social” has brought about, this is the one that has changed me the most. What about you?

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