The Future of Social Media: Chaos / Coherence?

What is the future for social media?

These are great days for social media. Blogs are becoming popular  and tools like Google Reader and other RSS aggregators are making it easier than ever to follow blogs and other new sources with little effort. Twitter enables us to find, follow, share and distribute ideas to the world from almost any platform. Combine tools available through mobile video and uploading capability on everything from Blackberries to iPhones to iPods to regular digital cameras and you have a panoply of opinions that are being transmitted to places like YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook at a rate that boggles the mind.

If you’re like me, you probably get a lot of value from social media.  I don’t think I could be effective in my job if I didn’t have tools like Twitter and Google Reader at my disposal. And that says something considering I am an academic at a leading research university that has access to many of the best databases in the world.

This past week I delivered* a webinar presentation* to a group of health promotion professionals working in tobacco control. Over the span of two hours I introduced the audience* to a variety of social media tools and platforms and how they could be used to leverage the power of their constituents and their teams of colleagues for public health benefit. Along the way I was able to poll the audience and the results were pretty much what I expected: most had some familiarity with social media, but few had dived in and were creating content or using it anywhere near its potential. I suppose if they were, they wouldn’t have been on the call*. In a week we’ll have the results of the follow-up survey and (if I did my job) these numbers will shift somewhat, but not explode. In some ways, this might be a very good thing because social media could well be a case where we might want to be careful what we wish for.

Why? Right now we have more information than we can cope with (although NYU professor Clay Shirky would argue, and I mostly agree with, that our problems are more about poor filtering than too much information, which we’ve had ever since we crossed that point when there became more media sources than time to read / consume them all in a lifetime). David Weinberger argues that all information is now miscellaneous, meaning that the need for organizing information is no longer relevant because we have the tools to search-as-we-go and no longer have to sort things into piles and categories the same way we once did. To him, the problem posed by information volume is largely minor.

Both the filtering and categorizing strategies for making sense of information and generating new knowledge from social media are based on our present and past experience where very few of us actually create an substantive content in an area. But what happens if, to borrow from Clay Shirky’s recent book title, we see: here comes everybody!? It is possible that once the oldest, non-Internet-using generation passes on that we’ll have somewhere close to 100%** digital network penetration in Western societies and a continued rapid rise in developing nations. (** knowing full well that there are people who will, as now, never wish to or maybe need to adopt new technologies and will resist or deny their adoption. The ‘true’ rate will likely be closer to 90-95% as we saw with landline phones or TV’s when they were at their peak).

Right now, social media use is sitting in a place where most people are NOT engaging in it in any meaningful way way generates value for others. Perhaps they are posting a comment on a website, or maybe joining a Ning community, but otherwise the occasional Facebook update coupled with watching cats play the piano on YouTube is about all they do. They represent the ‘lurkers’ on a site; people who’s value to a community or tool is derived not by what they generate in terms of content, but by providing an audience for taking that content and applying it to other things. What happens when the cultural norms shift, they’re literacy levels increase and, for example, they start blogging seriously (even if the content isn’t “serious”) or Twittering or posting their own videos of cats playing the piano on a video-sharing site using their handheld device? Questions abound about whether we can handle the information or whether the unleashing of creative energy on such a level will create a new Renaissance in human creativity.

Internet innovator and “pioneer” of virtual reality, Jared Lanier,  feels somewhat differently from either of those positions, but certain argues that a Renaissance is not forthcoming. Jared recently published a book that advances a hypothesis that social media is making us less social, coherent as a society and quite possibly destructive to creativity and innovation rather than supporting it. In a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes:

Mr. Lanier calls his book a manifesto, but it reads more like a collection of columns and notebook entries loosely organized around a central theme. More than anything else, he worries that those whom he calls “the lords of the cloud”—huge entities such as Google and Facebook—constrict their users, creating online environments in which true individuality is curtailed in favor of the extraction of marketing data and other intelligence. The practice is not only unfair and confining, he says, but perhaps even dangerous. “Emphasizing the crowd,” Mr. Lanier writes, “means de-emphasizing individual humans . . . and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors.” At the very least current Web arrangements encourage a shallow, lemming-like conformity of judgment.

Lanier makes some provocative points (I will admit to having not read his manifesto yet, just some columns on these ideas). Our social media structure right now works quite well because the numbers associated with the expression of Pareto’s Principle (or Power Law — which, in social media terms means that a lot of content is generated by a few, while this long tail represents the bulk of the rest of the transactions. Think: ‘the 80-20 rule’).What is interesting to consider is what happens when the truly big shift comes into social media through ubiquitious Internet, GPS, geotagging, mobile video and such.

Will we consume as we have? Will we need low information diets? Will we develop better filters? And is it even possible to create coherence from all of this or will chaos reign? And how might the science of systems and complexity help us anticipate this future and prepare us to adapt to an information landscape that is far larger than we have now?

Some food for thought. More on this to come…

* what do you call these things in the context of a webinar, where conference call meets virtual lecture + slide show? I never have been able to get the language right for this. At least, in a manner that I feel comfortable with.

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