My favorite Boston FM radio DJ back in the day was Charles Laquidara who would end his morning show (‘The Big Mattress’) with the immortal words, “If the creek don’t rise, if the good lord’s willing, if there ain’t no meltdown, we’ll do it all over again tomorrow right here on ‘The Biiiiig Mattress’!” It always impressed me that even one day out, he couldn’t be sure and he’d caveat his prediction of being there tomorrow. Smart man. Unlike my hero, I will now attempt to forecast the year ahead, (Yes, this is proof that I am not so smart).
Another hero is Mark Twain who might have said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes, though researchers doubt this claim. Absent a clean reference I’m going with the author of “Huckleberry Finn.” I think whoever said it was right though. History doesn’t repeat but given similar inputs, of which the human mind and its needs are one, we can expect general patterns to emerge. This helps explain the Hype Cycle first proposed by some genius at Gartner, which is very helpful in understanding how we buy and try to adopt emerging technologies.
I think it’s time to revisit what was once considered an unalloyed good, social media and where it might be taking us in the years ahead and I think that re-examination will begin next year. In the last few years this revolutionary technology has taken a back seat to other shiny objects like analytics and big data. While it has been out of the spotlight many of us have traveled far down the Hype Cycle curve to a point where we actually incorporate it into business to get things done. But the adoption has not been limited to business and social media is now one of the threads in the fabric of global society.
Nowhere has social media’s impact been felt to a more perceptible degree than in the middle east. This timeline from The Guardian, provides a succinct and inclusive description of the events of Arab Spring that began in December 2010. Social media gave political voice to millions of people who had been controlled by authoritarian regimes and enabled them to change their world beginning with the ouster of long time Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
I remember many people cheering social media’s coming of age as an effective political tool that enabled ordinary citizens to speak truth to power. In the spring of 2011, multiple CEOs of fast-growing tech companies wanted to jump on the bandwagon to claim a place for their products and approaches to business that ran through the intersection of social media and mobile technologies.
But today as we look at social media, it is far from the universal good that we heralded a mere five years ago. Social media is embedded in customer-facing business processes, politicians use it in governance and in campaigning; vendors have jumped on it to foster better contact with customers. But in all these cases we have begun to see the down side of having too easy a time at telling the world what we think.
Especially in the political sphere we find that our adversaries have the same access to the infrastructure that we do and they use it to effectively communicate and recruit followers for nefarious causes. We also know now the reality that it’s far easier to be snarky to strangers or even friends when we have a bubble of social media protecting us from viewing the body language of someone’s hurt feelings. Social media is paradoxically making us less sociable.
But we can’t blame the tool and we must remain conscious of how we use it. A backlash is forming in which people either don’t use some forms of social media, refer to it only occasionally, or actively use technologies that limit their exposure to the social stream. As the Hype Cycle suggests, a certain amount of retrenchment should be expected in the history of any technology, but social structures like the First Amendment will ensure that our access to the technology is not impeded. However, the free market might have other plans.
For example, earlier this year user growth at Twitter was reported to be slowing and with it there were concerns about its ability to generate an increasing revenue stream. There’s also the issue of user overload and the possibility that some enterprising vendor might develop application(s) that do for social media what ad blockers and DVR have done to other media. Already, encryption technologies are making it hard to track bad guys. But we need social media in ways that we don’t need TV partly because it is bi-directional and asynchronous and because in this hectic world it greatly expands our inner-most circles.
All this is a circuitous way of saying that I think next year will be, among many other things, a time for re-evaluating social media as it passes from precocious youth to responsible adulthood. We’ll find out then if I am right and I’ll write about it here, if the creek don’t rise…