Social media: The fallacy of a “new” revolution…

April 08, 2013  |   Blog   |     |   10 Comments

The social media revolution is often portrayed as a gargantuan shift the likes of which have never been seen before… its not really.

Artist: Banksy

Banksy: “Love is in the air”

If you read the news and follow the hype you’ll be familiar with the calls to throw out your old ways or risk becoming irrelevant. While there is some truth amongst the hype, we’ve seen similar changes before and you are better prepared than you realise – so if you’ve been following these rapid developments and wondering how to make sense of it all, read on.

Communication has always been the working machinery of humanity, and it’s never been static. In fact profound shifts in how we communicate have occurred continually throughout history and they all follow the same pattern… social media is no exception.

The most recent and applicable information revolution to what we are seeing today is the advent of the movable type press of Gutenberg in 1439.

Back in the time of horse and cart, Gutenberg’s technology took around 70 years spread, and another 150 years for its accumulative value to be realised.

Through this roughly two hundred year period ideas were suddenly able to spread across society faster and more consistently than ever. Until Gutenberg, very few were educated and literate, but with access to cheap books, language became standardised and literacy rates soared.

Before Gutenberg local and world news was relayed in the Sunday Church service. After Gutenberg that centralised power became more democratised with the rise of doctrines, newspapers and individual opinion.

This new access to information was seen as a direct threat to the established hierarchy so many of those in charge, mainly Churches and governments, took exactly the same actions we are seeing in corporations and governments today… they resisted.

Gutenberg's printing press set off a communication revolution, similar to what we are experiencing today

Gutenberg’s printing press set off a communication revolution, similar to what we are experiencing today

Back then, Spain and Portugal dominated the world and owed their prosperity to the traditional business models of war and taxes. Fearful of change Spain and Portugal spent the following two hundred years limiting or controlling the spread of the printing press. Through initiatives’ like the Inquisition, social discourse was quashed isolating them from a rapidly innovating world and eroding their world standing.

Poorer countries such as Holland and England with little to loose, embraced the technology leading to established standards in business, scientific thought and governance. Standards in accounting and technical breakthroughs in shipbuilding led to tremendous prosperity for these previously poor countries, all of which was facilitated by the fast and cheap exchange of ideas.

Correspondingly today, many of our most celebrated social media champions are companies who only jumped in because their backs were against the wall. Their subsequent turnarounds are well studied and the commonality is the courageous commitment that comes with necessity – i.e. Lego, Burberry, Deloitte.

Back in the 1400-1500’s this information surge touched all levels of society, and again, we are seeing the same thing today.

Published in 1522, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses is estimated to have achieved an incredible circulation of 300,000 copies. That huge volume of copies says a lot about capacity, the innate demand for information and the potency of his work.

The 95 Theses played a key role in the questioning an outdated and arguably corrupt religious/political hierarchy, the outflows of which went on to trigger the Reformation in Europe and the rise of a nations right to self-determination. Oddly enough, the Pope wasn’t pleased so Luther was excommunicated and labelled an outlaw, all for pointing out the truths & inconsistencies that are now considered to be self-evident; one wonders how much time Luther was forced to spend in the Ecuadorian embassy.

This is the function of real social dialogue in its most literal sense, changing societies, and the world, forever.

Another hundred years later, and Isaac Newton’s work was disseminated throughout Europe for research and discussion.

By the 19th century, the printing press was the default medium of social dialogue and the platform across which all sorts of change and development was facilitated.

This was the true birth of modern media and represented a significant step in the democratisation of information away from institutions, back to individuals… and it’s happening again today.

If there was any difference from now to then it would be the speed of uptake; Social media in its current form is at best 20 years old and already there are over 1.5 billion regular users; social media has achieved more in twenty years than the printing press did in one hundred.

Again our hierarchies are being questioned as more direct paths to information by-pass inherent flaws in previous models to create new ways of working and learning that are much more direct and efficient. That’s not to say hierarchies are dead, they didn’t die in the Reformation, but they are undergoing significant disruption and for us this is what “Digital Disruption” points to.

Be it social, political, organisational or religious, all practises are subject to scrutiny, and for the idealists amongst us this is very exciting.

Resist, or don’t resist… it really doesn’t matter; this shift is happening regardless of who participates. However for my money this unfolding represents the largest and most profound opportunity we’ll ever have to contribute in alignment to our inspiration…

By @wardsco

Scott (35 Posts)

CEO Digital Infusions

10 Comments for this entry

    April 8th, 2013 on 9:53 AM

    A very insightful piece scott. Churches and church groups spread the news. Fascinating.

    Janeece Keller
    April 8th, 2013 on 10:41 AM

    Interesting analogies Scott.

    Doesn’t it all come back to the idea that we need people around us to influence change (or adoption of something new)… the idea of tribes.

    In my view, social media is just another channel through which to create (and communicate with) our tribe. Therefore the relevance of what is done through the channel depends on the adoption rate of the channel by members of your tribe.

      April 8th, 2013 on 11:43 AM

      I agree… you’re right about the need for tribal connectivity and acceptance to bring about change, otherwise it all falls flat; there are heaps of examples of tribes that couldn’t get acceptance and died out due to the idiocy of their societal practises even though they knew that their existing practises were leading them to a dead end.
      The caveat I would add is that change often starts from the fringes/outcasts of a community and there is usually a number of significant emotional hurdles that have to be navigated before change can progress, therefore I would add that relevance can often be subjective.

        Kristine Dery
        April 10th, 2013 on 4:47 AM

        There are a number of discussions happening around how social media is reframing how we define community ( or tribe). A community may form around a common interest or activity , as it has in the past but it is much more dynamic with members joining, leaving , linking depending upon the vibrancy and activity of the group. It seems that in more virtual tribes, we are more comfortable joining but also leaving than we are in traditional communities where typically acceptance takes longer and commitment more permanent. Social media has not just changed the way we share information but also the way we organise ourselves and define our tribes.

          April 10th, 2013 on 2:15 PM

          Hi Kristine,

          Thank you for posting.

          So true. Community is incredibly fluid now days and really hard to define.

          Things like reCaptcha leave me a little bit stumped. The fact that it facilitates collaboration in a defined audience to complete a defined activity and achieve a defined outcome, indicates to me that its a community of sorts. However membership is so transitory (though repetitive) and participation in the community is not usually conscience which makes me wonder where the line is.

          For those not familiar with reCaptcha check this out

    April 8th, 2013 on 9:59 PM

    Great article Scotty, very interesting. It’s a wonder more companies don’t embrace the concept. Many say they do but really it half stars, it’ll be interesting to see where they are in 10 to 15 years

      April 9th, 2013 on 8:55 AM

      Agreed Sambo, most pay lip-service to social media and appoint people/agencies to mediate their customer and employee relationships… its the companies that jump in and learn to make it part of their culture that reap the benefits.

    David Favelle
    April 9th, 2013 on 8:28 AM

    I really like the Gutenberg printing press analogy rather than rehashing the advent of AC electricity. The Gutenberg example demonstrates the social impact and broad potential. It’s encouraging to think of digital/social as a rising tide. There will be a few Assange’s who’s heresy inflames the conservatives but lets hope that the new technologies can also be used to expose and harass the inquisitors!

      April 9th, 2013 on 9:04 AM

      I completely agree… in the end the kernel of truth made Luther’s stance compelling beyond all arguments and the Pope looked foolish when he posted his rebuttal… there are thousands of Assanges out there waiting to get involved and because technology is now decentralised and fast moving having a tidy house is the only true form of defence.

    April 10th, 2013 on 2:53 PM

    Great post Scott. I just thought I would add a few disparate ideas that seem to be floating around the analogy.

    David’s comment about the appropriateness of the Gutenberg analogy made me continue this thinking about the reformation and the disruption to power hierarches.

    The dead tree press in a sense is undergoing its own reformation and I am wondering what the lag will be in take up of paid online news (banner ads don’t pay for much I would imagine). Newsrooms have lost journalists with extensive knowledge and contacts and there are less people to produce more news given the 24 hour news cycle.

    Diminishing quality will often follow (press releases unquestioned as news, more syndicated op-ed pieces from overseas, politics treated as an extension of the Big Brother house with endless polls) and the choice people will make is to continue as is or look elsewhere for their daily news fix.

    So what will this re-forming of the fourth estate look like? What will be lost and what will be gained? Will the power of the Fourth estate be distributed amongst emerging online communities (such as Crikey or the proverbial grape-vine on steroids Twitter), will attempts with paywalls be successful in maintaining an audience and therefore power or will it disappear like the old plates that used to be inked up?

    By continuing the analogy, how important is it to have access to the fastest printing press (FTTH) or one that is cheaper and will keep up with today’s needs (FTTN)? Where is todays’ equivalent of Holland and England in all of this? Will it be a country that embraces the infrastructure? Or is the equivalent today not constrained by geography?

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