This is not how I thought the future would turn out.
Eleven years ago, I began work with my co-author Shayne Bowman on a paper for the American Press Institute called We Media: How Audiences Are Shaping the Future of News and Information. It was downloaded nearly 500,000 times and eventually became a sort of playbook for the likes of CNN, BBC and MSNBC as they struggled to navigate the turbulent media landscape of the new millennium.
For a little context, here’s what the social media world looked like in late 2001:
• Wikipedia was less than a year old.
• There were only 361M Internet users worldwide (there are now almost 1B users on Facebook alone).
• YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were three to five years from being created.
• Only a few thousand blogs were being actively updated.
We were witnessing the birth of a Golden Age of information and communication. But skepticism, fear, and just plain lack of imagination left many media and entertainment executives hoping the Internet was a passing fad.
As time went on, it became more and more obvious that the Internet wasn’t going away; that it was a fundamentally different than any technology that came before it. The difference? The Internet was (and continues to be) a disruptive technology that creates more disruptive technologies.
Looking back over the decade, We Media turned out to be remarkably accurate in its predictions of explosive citizen participation. We even went so far as to describe key psychological drivers:
“Social recognition is one of the biggest motivators, intoxicating participants with instant gratification and approval…”
You would think, at least I do, that this understanding would have made it blindingly obvious to me which companies would succeed or fail on the internet — especially social media ones. And in some cases, it did. So what did I get wrong? Twitter.
I signed up soon after the service launched. At the time, only about 40,000 tweets were being posted daily. Here’s my first:
chriswillis: talking with the wife. 2007-03-16 05:04:25
Scintillating? No. But at the time, that’s what Twitter was for — to share what you were doing with the world in 140 characters or less. It was a litany of status updates, which seemed mundane at best. In my view, Twitter encouraged you to write without thinking. It prominently showed your “followers,” which gameified the experience. I understood why that motivated people (brilliant) but was it a good thing? I didn’t think so.
My view of the future was more grandiose: People and democracies informed by a network of trusted intermediaries and robust discourse — not by rampant rumors and celebrity gossip. I tried to stick with Twitter but a mix of envy (I had tried to build something similar years before) and the dissolution of my social media utopia left me sour.
When Josh announced the #domosocial experiment/competition some of that long forgotten disdain returned. Twitter, Klout, Foursquare, even Facebook, turn social media into a game to attract participation. The #domosocial experiment, in my view, gameified gameification. The old me would have seen that as perverse. But a lot has changed.
Now, just five years since Twitter’s launch, people are posting more than 400M tweets each day. Twitter itself is a social media experiment on a global scale. The flood of chatter from it has resulted in better tools and understanding about how people communicate in emerging social networks. Twitter facilitates communication that is effortless and immediate to anyone on the globe with a laptop or just a cellphone. Some will use it to just follow Justin Bieber or share cat photos, but others are using it to curate ideas, organize political movements, or save lives.
So, the future might not have turned out exactly as I had imagined, but in many ways it’s grander and more exciting than I could have envisioned. The #domosocial experiment has helped renew my interest in social media. I can see it’s effects in the office, in conversations in the break room and how we are relating to each other. What I once saw as meaningless chatter, I now see as playing an important role in grooming and growing relationships. And it helps me see the people I work with in a much richer way.
And that’s a future I can live with.