Over the centuries, some extraordinary landmarks of enduring achievement have punctuated the journey of humanity. Think of the ancient Greeks and their achievements regarding learning and philosophy. The Romans stand out because of their organization and empire building skills as well as infrastructure. The oceanic explorers such as Columbus, Magellan and Cook expanded the world way beyond the imagination and perspectives at the time. These and other major achievements not only defined an era, but they also heralded a step change for humanity at that time.
Fast forward fifty or more years from now, and it will be interesting to see how writers describe our place in the sun, especially the 1990s and the 2000s. What will they say and how will they view our achievements? I suspect the internet and the digital world will rank very highly, and will be seen as truly transforming our society. Whether this is viewed with the same aura as the Romans or the Greeks remains to be seen.
But I also suspect that future writers will give social media a special highlight for the era in which we live, both in terms of its impact on individual behaviour, but particularly its impact on society overall.
Social media is frequently lauded for the way it has changed human interaction. Social information and photos on Facebook are often cited as significant and beneficial additions to how we connect with each other. On Twitter, expanded business opportunities through better direct engagement with customers are widely seen as transforming the way organisations do business.
But focusing on what the tools can do is actually missing a broader point, which is that social media has re-defined the way that information and knowledge are shared. Indeed, social media has re-written the rules for knowledge management. Let me explain.
If we wanted information about a topic in days gone by, we would seek it out either from a library or from some organised database of information that was held in some central location. In essence, we would use a “pull” type system to bring that information to us. This “pull” system has been the foundation of knowledge management over the past several generations.
But social media takes us in the other direction as it provides a very strong “push” model that complements the traditional pull approach. Thanks to technology, the “push” approach is revolutionary because it is instant, global and transparent. Facebook with over 1 billion users worldwide (and growing) enables the push of a huge variety of information to many different individuals, groups and geographies. Twitter generates some 500 million tweets every day, many of which push valuable information to recipients across the globe.
It is this “push” of social media that effectively creates the so-called fire hose of information in all its forms. However, the push of social media is not a one size fits all proposition. It helps to think about this point in three broad buckets as follows:
- The social push
- The business push
- The information and knowledge push.
The social push
This has social interaction as its main objective, and includes the push of photos to friends or details of holidays and so on. It includes messages from celebrities to their social media fans stating for example they have just landed in New York and the weather is cold. I am not sure this is adding significantly to the world bank of knowledge, but the fans probably think it is important. The popularity of this truly social medium has been enormous, and has without doubt been a major underpinning for Facebook.
The business push
Sales, product development, product information and product conversations are the main areas of activity here. Organizations have made great strides in recent years to really tap into the business opportunities that social media provides. This is still an evolving space for many organizations, but we are already seeing the huge uplift in the number of organizations actively engaged in social media with specific business objectives in mind.
The information and knowledge push
Thirty minutes on social media and search engines today can generate an array of information that would be considered impossible even twenty years ago. Information releases that are pushed on social media have become not only prevalent but also extremely popular with users. Leading magazines and journals are now circulating massive amounts of quality information that is readily digestible by readers. This has been helped along by user-friendly consolidation and filtering tools, such as Flipboard for the iPad.
Of course, these three areas above can all revert to a pull model whereby a user can interrogate social media tools to seek and obtain specific pieces of information.
It is hard to guess what writers in fifty years times will pen about our current times. How will the balance of the above be seen and how will the dynamics be played out? For example, how will the blending of the three areas above play out in the future and what will be the balance? One suspects that there may be no definitive answer other than it will be changing constantly.
However, what is clear from the explosive growth of social media is that people are not just talking or conversing about it, but they are getting rapidly engaged in all its forms, both as individuals and also as business and government. Future writers may well say that we have taken to heart the lyrics of the Elvis Presley song “A little less conversation, a little more action please”.