A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Walkley Public Affairs Convention, on the issue of social media.

My presentation was titled ‘Just because everything is different, doesn’t mean anything has changed.’

In it, I sought to outline my thoughts on what were the key driving forces underlying of the growing consumer embrace of social media.

To my mind, it boils down to three converging trends – Anxiety Overload, Enforced Autonomy and Institutional Failure.

But before I get onto exploring the socio-cultural context of social media’s emergence, let me revisit my presentation’s opening point (reflected in the title), which was that although we live in a world of constant change, nothing much has really changed in the media sector.

  • Media has always been inherently social – Media has traditionally served the role of creating the a ‘conversational context’ for audiences. Social media platforms have merely created new (that is, additional) places for audiences to converse. What is different this time around is the increased visibility of those conversations.
  • The ‘blogosphere’ is, in my view, largely an echo chamber – The blogosphere is highly self-referential (e.g. Blogger A writes a blog post. Blogger B reads it, and then writes a blog post referencing Blogger A’s post and adding his/her viewpoint). Importantly, most blogs are heavily reliant on mainstream media as the conversation starter (e.g. Blogger A watches news segment on CNN, or reads article in the New York Time, or attends an industry conference, and then and blogs about it, which is then referenced by Blogger B etc.). Of course, there is original thought leadership within the blogging community, just as there are bloggers who provide first hand coverage of events (which are then echoed by traditional media). My position is that such blogs are in the minority.
  • Media business models are still based on ‘attention economics’ – It is true that the economics of media has radically shifted. Digital distribution channels have reduced distribution scarcity, which has created a more (but not totally) even playing field. However, media business models are still focussed on ‘attention economics’, as they have been for quite some time. The primary revenue model is still that which has endured for centuries: aggregate attention, then monetise through various mechanisms.
  • Consumers’ demands are driven by rapid adaptation – Yes, today’s audiences/consumers are highly demanding, but that is simply not new. Consumers very quickly adapt their expectations of products and services. Today’s shiny new toy quickly becomes an expected feature. Let me give an example. Try to recall the sense of happiness you experienced when you acquired your first car. It was probably second-hand, but for you it was bliss-on-wheels. It represented a milestone in life, freedom etc. Now imagine how happy you would be if you had to use that same car today as your primary transport. How happy would you be? As you’ve grown older, as your economic power has increased, your expectations have changed. You want something better. The same applies to all products and services. What was  a perfectly good computer 2 years ago is now perceived as a doddering device. Your 50 inch CRT TV an ancient beast. Your first broadband connection was a triumph, now you’d see it as agonisingly slow. Consumers’ constant adaptation (and thus demand for something new) has been the cornerstone of capitalism for centuries.

So, yes, while we have witnessed considerable economic, technological and behavioural change, the change isn’t really as ‘revolutionary’ as many proclaim it to be. Indeed, it is wholly predictable.

Economic Lifecycles

In the latter part of my presentation, I pointed out how long it takes for technologically-driven economic lifecycles to complete a full circle.

Your typical cycle has four stages:

  • Scientific Discovery – The stage during which science discovers or creates a new capability.
  • Technology Development – The stage during which that new capability or discovery is converted into ‘technology’ (that is, an embodiment of applied knowledge).
  • Business Adoption – The stage during which the technology is adopted by some businesses to achieve economic and/or competitive advantage.
  • Organisational Entrenchment – The stage during which the technology is universally adopted or no longer creates economic or competitive advantage.

(My source for much of this thinking is an excellent, but little known book titled It’s Alive: The Coming Convergence of Information, Biology & Business, by Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis, released in 2003)

I gave the example of how it took four decades (yes, 40 years) for electricity to become organisationally entrenched (that is, to be used within a majority of businesses and households). A few weeks after my presentation, the Harvard Business Review published an article which confirmed this thinking.

In their paper titled An Exploration of Technology Diffusion, Diego Comin and Bart Hobijn studied the adoption of 15 technologies across 166 countries and found that, on average, it takes 47 years from the date of their invention for technologies to be fully adopted.

It is an interesting exercise to look at the ‘social web’ in this broader context.

We are only really in the technology development stage of this economic lifecycle, and it may be a full 10 or 20 years – when business adoption of these technologies is in full swing – before we witness the true changes it will bring.

Social Drivers

Returning to my original point regarding the key driving forces underlying of the growing consumer embrace of social media. These fall into 3 clusters:

  • The continuing erosion of faith in institutions – In the past decade or so, we have witnessed a number of failures by the key institutions that have traditionally provided a sense of perspective and helped us to negotiate our way in the world: corporations, governments and the church. Debacles like Enron, misgivings over the withholding of information leading up to the Iraq war, and growing awareness of the failures of religious organisations to abide by that which they preach are some examples of the kind of events that have led individuals to question their faith in these institutions.
  • Increasing anxiety about the future – Individuals have a lot to be worried about, at both the personal (micro) and global (macro) level. There is plenty in our daily lives to worry about (the economy, our finances, job security, health etc.), as well as on a much larger scale (the environment, wars, terrorism, natural disasters, global pandemics etc.).
  • Technology- and economics-fuelled autonomy – As consumers and citizens, we are increasingly being told we need to become more autonomous; to take more responsibility for our well-being and futures. Governments are requiring that we take more responsibility for services that they traditionally provided – healthcare, retirement, infrastructure etc. Businesses are increasingly forcing their consumers into ‘self-service’ options – ATMs for banking, self-scan checkouts in grocery stores, automated telephony systems everywhere etc. As personal autonomy (and, thus, responsibily) grows, so too do individual expectations of, and complaints around personal control for such things.

Faced with these converging forces, consumers are making some clear choices.

In response to their diminishing faith in institutions, they have decided they should rely more on their friends (and not institutions) to tell them what they need to know.

In response to their growing anxiety about what the future holds, they have decided that they need better information filters to help them focus on what is more important to them.

In response to the expectation that they take greater responsibility, then they have decided they they will do so on their terms.

The products, services and platforms that we’re seeing emerge from the field of social media dovetail very nicely indeed with the decisions consumers are making in response to this socio-cultural context, and it is for that reason we’re witnessing such fervent consumer activity.