Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen social media galvanize thousands over politics, create as many industries as it has destroyed, and offer an abundance of visual and audio entertainment. But has all this incredible change actually changed us, or just the world we live in?
Mashable, 6th January 2010
It stands to reason that children who read and write more are better at reading and writing. And writing blog posts, status updates, text messages, instant messages, and the like all motivate children to read and write. Last month, The National Literacy Trust released the results of a survey of over 3000 children. They observed a correlation between children’s engagement with social media and their literacy. Simply put, social media has helped children become more literate. Indeed, Eurostat recently published a report drawing a correlation between education and online activity, which found that online activity increased with the level of formal activity (socio-economic factors are, of course, potentially at play here as well).
Lisa Reichelt, a user experience consultant in London coined the very pleasant term “ambient intimacy.” It describes the way in which social media allows you to “… keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.”
Consider the many communications technologies through history — the telephone, Morse code, semaphore, carrier pigeons, smoke signals — they are all fairly inconvenient and labor intensive. Lisa has hit on the idea that communication has become so convenient that it’s actually become ambient around us. It surrounds us wherever we want it, not necessarily when it wants us. We dip into it whenever we like.
Knowledge Was Power
From his Meditationes Sacrae, published in 1597, Francis Bacon was paraphrased as saying “knowledge is power.” Fundamentally, the more you understand about life, the more chance you have at success. But these days, Wikipedia (Wikipedia) and Google (Google) have democratized information to the point where anyone is able to acquire the knowledge they may want.
As a case in point, I had never even heard of Meditationes Sacrae until I looked up the term “knowledge is power” on Wikipedia. In Bacon’s time, the only people that had access to books and the literacy to unlock the wisdom within were the wealthy with the time and inclination to learn.
Of course, books weren’t the only source of knowledge. Consider blacksmiths, dressmakers, cobblers or sailors who passed their skills and techniques from mother to daughter, from father to son. Back then, the friction that held people back from learning was low literacy, a lack of access to books and very little time. Now, that friction is almost non-existent. That is because of both the ability of computers to replicate information for distribution, and the the way that Google, Wikipedia and blogs have empowered people to share what they know. Now, the only real friction that exists is our own desire for knowledge. It’s there for you — if you want it.
The Reinvention of Politics
A recent report by PEW found signs that social networks may be encouraging younger people to get involved in politics. You only need look at Twitter’s (Twitter) recent impact on the Iran elections, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and even the election of Barack Obama to see that more and more people are getting involved in politics and are feeling they can make a difference.
One of the most popular blogs on the web, The Huffington Post, is mainly political. Politics has a fast pace, and that lends itself well to social media. UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown said in June last year that because of the Internet, “foreign policy can no longer be the province of just a few elites.” Twitter even postponed an upgrade because of the important role it was playing in the Iran (Iran ) elections.
These are all signs of both social media’s growing influence in politics, and the growing interest in politics from users of social media.
Marketing and advertising is transforming itself from an industry reliant on mass market channels to one which must embrace the power of the consumer and (attempt to) engage in conversations. The traditional approach of wide reach and repetitive messaging is now being replaced by many much smaller, niche and people-centric activities. Advertising isn’t dying, it’s merely changing form. We now have more power and more choice.
News as Cultural Currency
We’re no longer lazy consumers of passive messages. Instead we’re active participants. We now get news through the network we’ve created, and the news we pass to one another says something about us. It tells others what we’re interested in and what’s important to us. We used to call this gossip — and to a certain extent it still is — but unless you were a journalist at a local daily, the amplification that’s now possible through the likes of Twitter, Digg (Digg) or StumbledUpon hasn’t been experienced before.
Clearly there are skeptics. Susan Greenfield thinks that social networking is turning us into babies, shrinking our attention spans, our ability to empathize, and eroding our identity. She even suggests a correlation between the rise in prescriptions for drugs used to treat ADHD with an increase of time spent at computers. Similarly, Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster recently suggested that social networking causes increasingly “transient relationships,” is “dehumanising” community life and, as a consequence, we are “losing social skills.”
I think they couldn’t be further from the truth. Anyone with the slightest experience of using social media knows that it’s about being more social. We are more engaged with friends, we are more literate, more connected, more open to creating new relationships, and generally more interested in the world around us.