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The Evolution of New Media, Web 2.0, Social Media, Social Business: A Brief History of Everything

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So what is Social Media? We know what it is when we see it. We can give you examples of social media but you’ll be hard pressed to get a very satisfactory answer out of anyone. Is it the opposite of antisocial media? Not exactly. Is it a medium? Is it a movement? Is it a technology? The very unsatisfactory answer is yes, to all three questions.

And if we can’t even explain Social Media very well why are some people already using terms like social business or social enterprise? Is it just a branding exercise? Partly. But part of the need for newer definitions is because the old ones don’t work perfectly. But before we get to the newer definitions I’d like to stay focused on the current one of Social Media.

Really, all of this is the latest evolutionary attempt to sound smart with vocabulary. Over the last 10 years we’ve been trying to explain the changes that have taken place on the Web and the effects of which we’ve felt throughout business and culture.

In order to really explain to you what Social Media is I need to take you on a relatively short journey over the last 10 years. (Short for a history lesson but long for a blog post).

The Cluetrain Manifesto

Almost 10 years ago the Web crashed. Well not the Web, the economy. But everyone blamed the Web. After people came to grips with what happened they were left licking their wounds and pondering the great dot com crash. After the party was over and the money left town, the die hards stuck around and continued to use the Internet for many exciting things. Most Internet advocates felt betrayed. It wasn’t their fault the bubble popped. It was driven by the worst combination of corporate greed and ignorance. Out of these digital ashes rose the awareness that if the Internet was going to reach its full potential things were going to have to be different. Real people needed to be in the driver seat not the collective conscious-less, non-entity called The Corporation. Corporations allowed greedy narrow minded people to do things they’d never do in the light of day.

At first there was no terminology to describe what was happening. One of the earliest attempts to put a voice to this, The Cluetrain Manifesto,  tried to explain the shift, years before the bubble popped, by pointing out that markets had become conversations. Companies could no longer push messaging at customers and expect them to act like sheep. Outside of a small group of Web dissidents and scholars no one had any idea what the Cluetrain Manifesto was talking about. Few even knew it existed even though it had been placed on the Web for free. Ironically no one had a clue. Many interpreted it as the ranting’s of a bunch of idealists. Little did they know the authors of Cluetrain were (and still are) some of the biggest skeptics. The Clutrain Manifesto was the first shot fired in a new revolution. But no one heard it.

Eventually consumers and employees started taking to web-logs as a way to communicate with one another, voice their opinions on things and occasionally get really worked up about this unidentified cause and really, really worked up over the newest bright shiny web object. It would take approximately 5 years before the first signs of this coming storm were visible.

New Media

Web-blogs became blogs with comments and RSS and our first linguistic attempt to put a name on the revolution fell short with New Media. Yeah, not very original, but it was a start. More and more people started to see the writing on the walls and began to talk about how in theory companies could use blogs and RSS to communicate directly with customers.

Stop and think about that for a minute: In theory they could communicate directly with their customers? It may seem like a complete radical prospect now but less than 5 years ago it was almost impossible for a large global company to communicate with (not just broadcast to) their customers. Their usual weapons of choice were advertisements and press releases. Either way they were reliant on the media to carry that message for them.

Driving this change was a fun little movement called Word of Mouth Marketing. Built on the premise that traditional marketing was intrusive and irrelevant, WOM was and still is a return to people communicating with people. Create great experiences, empower your customers to be evangelists and let WOM happen. Idealistic at times but still one of the core precepts behind social media. People being people and doing cool things. While WOM was and still is hugely popular it quickly took a back seat to New Media. WOM by itself is nice but digital WOM scales.

Blogs and RSS were only the beginning. AJAX, Java scripts, wikis, mashups, blogs and other (relatively) user friendly, and mostly open source, technologies made programming easier than ever and almost free. New Media and WOM couldn’t explain the broader possibilities these tools had on business. These tools weren’t just for geeks and marketers, they had powerful implications on IT and business.

Web 2.0

Tim Orielly would eventually stand up on a stage and pronounce that we had entered a new state on the Internet: Web 2.0. This was our nascent movements first major assault and our first real buzz word. Overnight everything became 2.0. No one wanted to be an irrelevant 1.0, everyone needed to become 2.0. But like most buzz words no one really knew what it meant.

Web 2.0 was the term given to these revolutionizing technologies that were enabling New Media and putting it in the hands of consumers. Two geek’s in a basement somewhere were creating websites that acted more like software and allowed customers to create, publish and curate their own content faster and cheaper than the media or corporate marketing departments could ever dream of.

The natives were restless and they were pounding on the gates. The real problem was that the natives were better armed, better trained and far out numbered the establishment. It was the equivalent of the French Revolution, except instead of starving peasants they were Navy Seals armed to the teeth.

The revolution wasn’t just being waged on the media and marketing organizations. Lost tribes like Knowledge Management and internal IT revolutionaries raised a rallying cry against outdated, limiting, expensive and just plain crappy Enterprise software. Andrew McAfee raised the flag of Enterprise 2.0 and an army was formed.

Then things started to get interesting. The revolutionaries quickly became tired of corporate America and every Johnny-come-lately grabbing onto the Web 2.0 moniker. People already wanted to claim things were Web 3.0. The shark had been jumped. As quickly as it sprung up Web 2.0 was replaced by Social Media. Social Media as a term and as an industry, flourished even while the economy crashed and burned.

Social Media

Corporate America stumbled, tripped and fell flat on it’s face, taking the World’s economy with it. Newspapers, media companies and advertising agencies opened wide the faucet and shed employees  as fast as they could. Yet if you worked in Social Media during this time you would have never known anything was wrong with the economy. While those holding down the status quo got the rug pulled out from underneath them Social Media climbed to new heights, looked over it’s shoulder and gave the dead a dying a look that said, “I told you so.”

The battle would soon be over. 90% of the US population is online. 80% of the online population now uses Social Media in some form. But you almost have to try not to. Facebook is ubiquitous, I doubt there’s a newspaper online that doesn’t have a blog and the once proud traditional media has embraced Social Media in a desperate bear hug  to stay relevant. Even Oprah and Martha Stewart are on Twitter. Today, Social Media has a firm stronghold on our vernacular. But, the term, Social Media has it’s limits.

The Next Evolution

Much like New Media and WOM couldn’t explain all the possibilities implied in Web 2.0, new terms like Social Business or the Social Enterprise are trying to get at all the implications this revolution has on business. Unlike Web 2.0 the linguistic challenges it faces aren’t just technical, they’re also cultural. A Social Business/Enterprise is as much the internal reflection of what Social Media reflects externally as it is a technologically opportunity.

I personally think that over the next few years the buzzwords will die away and we’ll just be back to, The Web and Media and Business again. But I don’t hate the buzzwords, its normal, actually its unavoidable. And while I may not have given you a clear definition, hopefully I’ve given you enough context as to how we got here that you don’t need to rely on buzzwords and their made up definitions. Here’s to the next 10 years.

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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

  • http://draculaandkittens.com/acknowledgements-0 Brandon Mendelson

    Tac, I thought this was a wonderfully concise write-up. Personally, I’m looking forward to the next year or so where the buzz words and social media snake oil salesman disappear.

  • http://draculaandkittens.com/acknowledgements-0 Brandon Mendelson

    Tac, I thought this was a wonderfully concise write-up. Personally, I'm looking forward to the next year or so where the buzz words and social media snake oil salesman disappear.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Brandon, I can't promise the buzzwords and snake oil salesman will ever go away and it won't happen this year or the next but let's keep our fingers crossed.

  • flashpreviews

    First of all I love the way you write, and second I agree with you 100 percent because I been there. When people started talking about web 2.0 it was hard to explain what it actually was. Today everyone understands, however we are moving to a new era and that is the era of 3d chips, and faster systems, cloud technology, and smart machines, so what we will call this era? I wonder. What ever we call it is actually not important, what is important is that we use it and that we move forward in this never ending road.

    Anthony Galeano
    Creative Director/President

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  • kellyfeller

    Tac, nice historical perspective on the evolution of social media. Thank you for mentioning open source software. I actually think the rise of crowdsourcing software development had an even greater influence on the growth of social media than we all tend to give credit. And did you perhaps miss the early chat environments of pre-web Usenet groups-the original online communities?

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Totally agree Kelly. Open Source has been huge in driving social media adoption. And while I didn't mention BBS and chat rooms because they were primarily pre-2001, they obviously still live on and were social media's missing link. I have a soft spot in my heart for both. My senior thesis in the mid-late 90's was on chat rooms and “computer-mediated communications” <sigh>

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