Social Media has become a catch phrase that basically describes how we communicate today. We barely think about what that phrase means any more. There was a time not too long ago where most “media” was not “social” but “social media” has been around for almost forever! These days we don’t question what it means to be social and every site, tool, app, service provides some sort of mechanic to make you be part of the “social” ecosystem. In a series of blog posts I want to explore and question the very mechanics we use to be social in each of the major services. What does it mean to you and to me and how do you use it to promote your thoughts, ideas and social networks. But first, let’s set the stage.
When we talk about pre-social media, we’re talking about one-way media systems such as radio, newspapers, television and movies. The content was delivered to you and you consumed that content. If you wanted to be social with that content, you burned CDs, created tape collections and sat in darkened rooms chatting about your Depeche Mode obsessions with your closest friend(s).
As a teenager in the 80s/90s, social meant hours watching television together with a friend on the phone while doing homework (yeah, kids multi-tasked before the Internet ;) The mechanics of being “social” in other words, were stateless and manual. I had to know someone, I had to call them and “liking” something was something we did but we could never go back to see/hear what I had said. Sharing was a game of cryptic whispers in the schoolyard or office water cooler
The Network Is Here
On the new modem networks, Bulletin Board Systems, newsgroups and e-mail were taking off. All these systems carried the state of the conversation and allowed a history but it was not real time. People logged in, had/continued a conversation and then logged off. I personally spent a lot of time on comp.sys.ibm.pm.games.rpg on Usenet. There were personalities; people were helping each other and it was very social. I could communicate back with game developers, I could contribute to the network ecosystem with my content. This was social media, just not very popular and very geeky.
However, the mechanics dictated the way we were social. Firstly we had usernames. This meant we didn’t need to be “real”. Secondly, the systems were coded for you to post and come back to it later. There were no notification systems like we have today. If I posted on a newsgroup, I had to make a point of going back to check on that conversation and continue it. What this meant was only the dedicated and the geeky needed apply. Computers were expensive or the domain of universities; if you wanted to be social online it required significantly more time assessment to follow more than a few threads of conversations or groups of people. This meant tighter niches of individuals and relatively deeper relationships IF you chose to go there even. The systems dictated how we were being social.
Forums and ICQ/IRC
I would argue that much of today’s mechanics in web-based social media derive directly from forum systems of the 90s and the chat systems like ICQ and IRC. Forums continued the mechanics of the Bulletin Board Systems but made them available to a wider audience by using the web. Forums started combining e-mail and other notification systems so that you could effectively communicate and follow larger groups of people and manage greater numbers of conversations/networks. Today, forums are still important methods of social communication. You can leave a message or continue a thread, ask a question to a niche network of people and come back to the conversation as you have time.
Internet Chat systems brought out the idea of “real-time” messaging. Groups of people could be social in real time. Group and one-on-one chat became sophisticated. Even today we use IRC at work as our main social and conversation outlet outside of Skype and e-mail.
What was missing?
We were very social and creating networks or moving networks online but we were missing the “media”. I would argue this is when Blogger and the original blogs really started the movement towards today’s social media. We all started posting thoughts, articles and content on blogs. But we didn’t do it in isolation. We used forums, chat, email and usenet to promote those blogs. Furthermore, the blog was created but you could comment. Suddenly a piece of media was social. You could tell the author what you thought of that content or promote it if you liked it/hated it. The mechanic that truly changed blogs into a social medium was the two-way communication with the ability to “comment”.
The Mechanics of Social
As developers create tools, apps and services, we think a lot about the mechanics with which you communicate and the reasons why a system or piece of communication even exists. The mechanics are dictated both by the product vision and community necessity. If the web had remained as sites with no ability to comment back, we would never have the blogosphere. These days we have many mechanics that we develop or roll out with each product to make it social. Inherently, internally, what we are looking for is increased engagement, a better experience and depending on the product vision, a community that is working together and being collaborative. This translates into a number of different mechanics/systems and tools which you use, sometimes as we, the creators intend, and sometimes in ways we could not imagine!
Each service has different mechanics and different ways of making you be social. Added to the mix now more than ever is the user interface with which you interact with those mechanics. As an example: if it is not easy to “like” you won’t do it. Placement of social interactions matter as much as the interaction systems themselves. We use them unconsciously, but for those building their brands online, wanting to control their online reputation and promote their content; examining these mechanics and how they work is more important than ever.
So what do you think of the mechanics of Pre-Social Media? What forms of communication and media slipped through my mind? Do you still use usenet, IRC and forums?
Next: The Mechanics of Being Social in Twitter