Social media is clearly the rage. It’s all anyone in technology or marketing talks about. You can’t open a newspaper or turn on the radio without hearing about it. And millions of people are embracing it as their source of information and their means of communicating.
So, why have these platforms — Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Stumbleupon — grown so dramatically? Is it because technology suddenly enabled a new form of behavior? Or is it because there was already a basic human desire that didn’t have an outlet and now finally does? I think it’s the latter.
We are all social animals. Centuries ago we gathered around the town hearth to greet one another and share stories. Years later we lived in ghettos — in the positive sense of the word — where we were united by ethnicity or culture or background. Even more recently we would gather in cafes or pubs, to connect with friends and neighbors. It was a basic human need, this desire to socialize, and connect, and express ourselves and share our ideas. But much of modern life has worked against this undeniable human desire to communicate.
After World War II, we moved out of the cities and into the suburbs. We commuted to jobs all by ourselves in metal boxes on wheels. We worked in cubicles or offices rather than in open spaces. And until recently, virtually all media was one-way communication. We could listen. We could receive. But we couldn’t participate. Why you had to be brilliant, persuasive and lucky just to get a letter to the editor published.
Even technology — from the first personal computers to the early web to the ubiquitous iPod — isolated us further. Not only were we more likely to be physically separated from others while engaging with messages and entertainment, the proliferation of options and personal choices diminished community even further by eliminating the shared experiences that we once got from watching Mash or Cheers or Seinfeld at the exact same time as everyone else and knowing it.
What social media has done is allow us once again, despite our geographic separation, or our cubicle, or our house in the suburbs, to connect with each other in a more natural, more human way.
Better yet, we can join forces around what we have in common. Music, literature, business, technology, family, being a Mom or a sports fan or road cyclist.
We have, and have always had, a desire to express our opinion, to matter to others, to do business with a human being not a corporation, to be treated with respect, to be part of the conversation. Social media not only enables us, it encourages us.
That is why there are 200 million people on Facebook. That is why Twitter is adding millions of users every month. That is why YouTube videos aren’t simply watched, but commented on over and over, emailed to friends and posted on blogs.
Social media have re-lit the hearth. And brought back the neighborhood pub. And created ghettos once again. Communication will never again be the same. And that’s a good thing.