With shockingly high adoption rates and history-altering uses by massive groups of people, it's clear that the social media paradigm is quite mainstream. Indeed, we are in the midst of what will be looked back upon as a very tumultuous period of social and economic change during which our global society was radically shaped, in both conceptual and concrete ways, by communications technology. (The impact of social media on our society at large is not the focus of this newsletter, but if you're interested in a more academic approach to that topic, I'd like to recommend author Clay Shirky's recent TED talk, How Social Media Can Make History.) As such, it's no surprise that social media has revolutionized businesses in almost every industry, especially ours.
Increased online social activity has presented an obvious opportunity for marketing and advertising that has yet to be fully mastered. But for businesses, establishing simple and effective social media outposts can quickly bring local advantages to global operations. What I mean by this is that actual personal relationships are just as valuable to a firm serving clients all over the planet as they are to small, local businesses. Using social networks can foster real relationships that enterprises used to assume only mattered to customers that walked into the local hardware store. But I'm not sure that was ever true. I think that relationships have always mattered—it's just that, for a time, we were able to use advertising to create the illusion of relationships (think about the celebrity endorsement model of commercials). Now that real relationships are possible, the illusion is just not going to cut it anymore.
The more people use social media to speak their mind about experiences with products and services, the more businesses will benefit or suffer from the unsolicited opinions of individuals. The only difference between this and true word-of-mouth is that these opinions persist and can become very sticky. They are posted to blogs, forums, tweeted, texted, etc. and instantly visible to potentially thousands of people. Moreover, this information remains visible until it is buried by the daily onslaught of other commentary- that is, unless it attracts attention. Then it gets sticky and spreads faster than any old-school PR maven could control. With satisfied customers, this is a good thing, but in cases of customer dissatisfaction, it could be disastrous. In last October's newsletter, I discussed how understanding this new system is critical to managing your online reputation and recommended some tools and techniques to make that a part of your routine. I'd recommend reading it for more on how social media is reshaping business public relations. More recently, I wrote A Practical Guide to Social Media to evaluate business use of social networks for marketing.
But the shifts I've described above are old news at this point; we already observe and understand them well. What is more interesting to consider is what I like to call the "fractalization" of the web. The connections across the web, whether personal, professional, or other, are growing in number and granularity, making the passage of information faster than we can even begin to comprehend. It used to be that two websites might be connected initially by a single, mutually agreed upon link- "I'll link to you if you link to me." This kind of connection might look like a simple, straight line between two points. Then, portals were manually set up to organize websites by category. If someone working on the portal found your site, she might add it herself, or you could submit your link to the portal to be entered. If the portal was a point, you could now imagine many straight lines radiating out from it and connecting to other points. Once Google innovated an algorithmic approach to indexing the content of the web, the portal became obsolete, and the vast number of connections was made even more clear. This mastery over the web enabled Google to become one of the most quickly expanding and profitable companies in history. But an interesting shift is occurring now as a result of social media. Consider this quote from an article by Fred Vogelstein in this month's issue of Wired, entitled The Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network's Plan to Dominate the Internet
"In the eight months ending in April, Facebook has doubled in size to 200 million members, who contribute 4 billion pieces of info, 850 million photos, and 8 million videos every month. The result: a second Internet, one that includes users' most personal data and resides entirely on Facebook's servers."
What Vogelstein is hinting at here is that a massive amount of data and connections, potentially larger than the web itself, is growing outside of the reach of Google's spiders. As long as that remains true- both the exponential growth of data and its exclusivity to social networks- Google's dominance over the web and how we use it is at serious risk (probably even despite their upcoming "social" offering, Google Wave). Because Facebook, for example, keeps its data from being indexed by Google, the most numerous and granular connections, those which manifest the detailed tips of the fractal image I'm using, are not visible or navigable without participation in social media. This is a significant paradigm shift from the robotic to the personal, which could ultimately render search engine optimization obsolete, especially if Facebook gets its way. A bit more from Vogelstein:
"Today, the Google-Facebook rivalry isn't just going strong, it has evolved into a full-blown battle over the future of the Internet—its structure, design, and utility. For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google's algorithms—rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg's vision, users will query this "social graph" to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire—rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search. It is a complete rethinking of how we navigate the online world, one that places Facebook right at the center. In other words, right where Google is now."
Vogelstein goes on to cover the struggle between Google and Facebook comprehensively, addressing not only the companies' attempts to monetize user patterns and data accumulation, but also the ways that each has significantly directed the trajectory of how the web is used. About Google, Vogelstein writes, "It was only after it had made itself an essential part of everyone's online life that its business path became clear—and it quickly grew to become one of the world's most powerful and wealthy companies," implicitly suggesting that Facebook, too, having made itself an essential part of many people's lives, could discover a viable business plan.
Facebook's prospective business plan depends completely upon the fractalization of the web, an increasingly tight-knit network that is an organically created mesh of the connections between individuals and the data they willingly share within the context of a trusted social network. Whether this is preferable to the more sterile and "objective" algorithmic approach of Google is a matter of opinion at the moment, which means that, for now, the choice between robots and humans is yours. However, if future users do turn en masse to social networks for the answers they currently get from Google, that will righly turn a focus on search engine optimization (SEO) to social media optimization (SMO).