So much has happened in the past ten years under the title ‘social media’ that it is nearly impossible to determine what is going on. Add to that all the so-called social media experts, who blur the picture more than clarifying it, and it’s obvious we need to cut through the chatter to try to figure out what has happened, and where this is all headed.
I would like to offer an analysis that is well-suited to a 15 minute presentation, meaning that it overly simplifies a great deal, but reveals a lot, too: an attempt to make sense of the social media blur.
Early social media — blogs — weren’t really very social. They owe more to the earlier metaphor used to describe them — personal publishing — than to what we are now coming to understand as social. But this was the first — and necessarily first — stage of social media, the democratization of media, that led to the defection from mass media of many millions: a fact that has profoundly reshaped mass media and other mass institutions, especially in recent years as those organizations that formerly lectured about the evils of social media have turned about to embrace it.
The rise of social networks — the second phase of social media — changed perceptions about what mediated social interactions could be, and sparked an explosion in what has been called ‘user generated content’ — although that term is itself deeply embedded in the thinking of the publishing world. The ‘users’ involved aren’t ‘users’, they are participants, citizens, collaborators. They aren’t ‘generating content’, they are inhabitants of a social sphere where emitting observations, questions, and answers are the core elements of creating a shared identity.
The emergence of real-time streams — microblogging or microstreaming — is the third phase of social media, and one that builds on and reworks the foundation of blogs and the social layer of networks. It seems that people will naturally gravitate to a conversational medium — especially based on the open follower or asymmetric follower model (a la Twitter). These contexts are wired on top of open social networks, and their fast tempo leads them to be the metronome of social interaction on the web. They in effect set the clock speed of social interaction at a faster pace than previously. Just as importantly, in the context of real-time streams changes the role of blog posts (and other long-format media) from being contexts for social interaction into social objects: items that are discussed in the stream by participants. This is leading to the movement of many comments from blogs and non-streaming social networks into the stream.
Now, we are headed into the fourth phase of social media, where the growing market impacts of streams will begin to impinge on computing in general, so we will see streams become primary design elements of operating systems for computing and mobile devices. As this advance spreads, the premises of the earliest phases of social media can begin to be considered as layers in an architecture. Old school blogs and other publishing models that create static web pages will increasingly be treated as an archive, or as a source for social objects referenced by URL, but where the URL is used to fetch the content and display it in the stream, just as today photos are being resolved in Twitter clients. In the near future, all media types will be resolved in place, in the stream. This will create interesting issues with advertising revenues and other media control issues, but in the long run, ads and other metadata will be pulled along with the context-free slow media into the socially-embedded context of streams.