Social Media Week* unfurled at a dozen cities around the globe last week. I was fortunate to attend several events in Los Angeles and enjoyed the irony of finding pleasure and purpose in interacting with people in the flesh (real live human beings!) rather than via Tweets, blog comments, and Facebook messaging.
There was further irony in the use of the word “week” because, of course, social media is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year phenomenon, a revolution that has quickly reshaped, reordered, and redirected marketing and advertising, publishing and entertainment, social activism and fundraising, governance, and communications from the familial to the corporate. Doubters are much like onlookers who thought the Wright Brothers’ lawn mower engine with wings was an amusing folly. Half a century later we had supersonic flight.
Continually revamped web services notwithstanding, however, social media reduces to a means of listening to customers, citizens, stakeholders, constituents, and friends and providing value to them. It holds for individuals, institutions, and brands. Truly, it is part of the centuries-long process of empowering people to find information, instruction, and inspiration — and to follow their own bliss, make change, and build life-sustaining relationships where they will. Thank you, Mr. Gutenberg.
Social media, especially as mobilized communicators propagate it, is no magic elixir to vexing social ills nor will it replace traditional service-providing, problem-solving institutions. But it can do amazing things, such as crater corrupt power structures or “crowd source” solutions to quandaries that stump the experts (see the recent gamers’ solution to an AIDS-related problem that doctors couldn’t figure out). As Dr. Seuss might say, Oh, the places we’ll go!
Communications are now conversations. Multinationals, governments, and other power centers are quickly realizing that the traditional levers of power have eroded, but powerful new tools are at their disposal. Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.” Social media is, at last, such a lever.
As currently constituted social media won’t work, or not for long, if those who would harness its power lack authenticity, transparency, and quick, effective response. Real change will happen, as it always has, only when people change their own minds. But they are emboldened to do so and take action by what they see and hear others doing.
Social media will make the world a more efficient place. Will it be a better place? The answer seems to be yes … but we’ll see. Consider that mass adoption of new technologies don’t just empower individuals and groups — they further equip the not-always-benign people-monitoring arsenals of governments and corporations. The “social” technologies also encourage individuals to ignore the people around them just as they hamper the need to mature with dignity (… which necessarily includes transcending past lives and mistakes). [See my post http://pubarts.com/2010/12/09/of-laughter-and-never-forgetting as well as Maura Johnston’s recent excellent take on the subject, as recommended by my old chum Kara Swisher: http://bit.ly/qlEeRU.]
The remarkable thing is we didn’t even know all this was missing from our lives. For better and worse there are always ambitious, wicked-smart folks feverishly devising something to flip the world on its axis. “It’s not consumers’ job to know what they want,” Steve Jobs once said. Unfortunately, Mao probably said much the same thing about peasants.
* I thank the organizers, especially Toby Daniels, the conference’s globally peripatetic founder, L.A. host Michael Terpin of Social Radius, local sites such as Ogilvy, and generous hosts like Social Vibe. … A great team effort all in all.