Social Media: Past, Present, Future

The original writing on the wall. For a great imagining see the intro to HBO's Rome.

The Inspiration

I just finished "Writing on Wall: Social Media, The First 2000 Years" by Tom Standage, a rare example of a book both ambitious in scope and intended for a popular audience that didn't turn out completely horrible. 

Standage superbly stitches together a string of anecdotes to summarize the history of "social media," which he wisely doesn't define precisely but that I will define as: 
Social Media (n): Written or spoken commentary intended for a general audience, distinct from storytelling and from peer-to-peer communication including letters, phone calls, and snapchats.
Some of the social media forms he mentions are:

The best part of the book, however, is not the anecdotes but Standage's cautious analysis of the merits of different forms of media. He smashes broadcast pretty hard, and regrets the transition from a teeming ecosystem of small-time hand-operated presses to industrial scale steam-powered penny papers. He also notes the contribution, good and bad, of social media to revolutions past and present, but leaves final judgement to the reader. 

The Model 

I got to thinking about how all of these media types relate on a plane ride to Las Vegas and decided that there are two relevant dimensions: Access and Control. 

Universal media is available to most people at little or no cost. Exclusive media is prohibitively expensive or consumable only by the highly educated. Distributed media is created and circulated by many people. Centralized media is created and controlled by only a few. If that's confusing you can just think of the x-axis as the number of writers, and the y-axis as the number of readers. 

When you plot all of the different types of social media onto axes of Access and Control, it looks something this:

As usual, up and to the right is better, and everything is totally subjective.

Things get even more fun when you give the quadrants names:

"Dark Ages," the lower left quadrant, contains media forms that were produced on a small scale primarily for the wealthy and powerful. Because little was shared and little consumed, I also considered naming this quadrant "Boring."


Media in the lower right hand quadrant is characterized by a lively conversation among the elite. Here you get Cicero's widely shared letters, couplets exchanged among courtiers, and the animated community of amateur radio enthusiasts in the early 1900s. But to copy one of Cicero's letters you had to employ a scribe, to read couplets you had to be a courtier, and to join the amateur conversation you had to set up your own shack:

Amateur radio shack in 1922. More effort than tweeting. Photo credit kb6nu.com

In the upper right hand quadrant things really start to get rowdy; now the oppressed as well as the privileged possess the power of self-expression. Here you get the free press pamphlets that played a pivotal role in the Reformation, the American Revolution, and French Revolution, and the hot topics of today, Blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Despite Standage's more expansive coverage and my own definition, I think that this quadrant only contains what most people think of as "social media," because in this quadrant only is media truly created and consumed by society.

Things getting crazy up in here!

The fourth and final quadrant contains what most people would call "mass media," as well as the censored press. Media forms in this quadrant reach an audience as wide as or wider than media forms in the upper right, but fewer people produce them. When the state controls production, these media forms become propaganda--hence the label, "Big Brother."  Even broadcast free from state influence can get pretty creepy:

First broadcast of the Academy Awards 1953. Photo credit: womensday.com

The Implication

Digging deeper in to the model, we can look at how media forms evolve over time. Here's the evolution of the written word from the manuscript to the steam-powered press: 

Here's the evolution of long distance communication from telegraphy to broadcast television:  

You can see that both of these media forms follow the same trajectory. First, due to limited technology, the media is in the "Dark Ages." Then as technology improves, but remains expensive, it becomes part of "High Culture." When a breakthrough like Gutenberg's or Zuckerberg's (what is it with bergs?) occurs, it becomes proper "Social Media." But then something evil happens: the powerful learn to contain and exploit, and media moves into the fourth quadrant, "Big Brother."

So now let's look at the most recent genre of media, digital. (To be fair, one could say that digital evolved from radio, but starting anew suits my purposes better). We started, as normal, in the lower quadrants, with exclusive and relatively centralized academic and then corporate digital networks. In the last 20 years of course, we've seen an explosion of through the free web, and it has been, on so many levels, incredible. 

But things are changing.  Facebook has monetized, and although it hasn't destroyed the experience, it has transformed a formerly flat playing ground into one where those with the most to spend on ads can make the most impressions. Standage speaks at length about the "Golden Shield," China's large and sophisticated internet censorship operation, and if the NSA decides to apply its surveillance we could be right there with them. Most interesting to me is the growing shift toward the manufacture of viral content, by media operations like Upworthy and increasingly ones like HuffPo and Slate. Behold, social media, your future awaits!

Is this future overly pessimistic? Probably. Am I drawing huge conclusions from very little data? Definitely. But I do think that there is a natural tendency for people fight over media, and for the winners to lock down control. Internet freedom is very much something we have to fight for. Good content is something is very much something that we need to fight for, and probably pay for--too bad I'm so poor.

That's all I have to say for now, except this: please Twitter, stay free!

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