Social Media: An Unofficial History

This past Wednesday was ‘Official’ Social Media day and I had an opportunity to have a good and long conversation (for input into this article, although it turns out to have been very little input) about social media, its uses and how I would define it. Upon further thought I wanted to make some comments regarding the history of social media.

Many people when talking about social media immediately think of Facebook, Twitter and the other various Internet outlets. While these services are definitely examples of modern types of social media they are in no way the beginning or end of what should be considered as such.

If we look to historical examples for a better understanding of what social media actually is I think that we will find that social media/mediums has been around for a much longer time than people want to admit.

Taking a look at the standard telephone and its origin with the party line will give us a perfect example of social media.

When the telephone arrived to the masses it provided an opportunity for people to connect with others in new and meaningfully ways. More importantly, when the telephone arrived and people shared one common party line there were constant opportunities for people to converse, connect and network with one another. Although these types of connections took place prior to the telephone they were amplified by the party line technology. Look to modern day and what do we have; Twitter, chat rooms and instant messaging that can provide the same type of experience only with new technology. What the party line brought to conversations and connections, modern technologies and services are now delivering only using a different platform.

If we look even further back, to possibly the most important invention of all times, I think we will find an even better historical grounding in social media.

Before Gutenberg the written word and reading were only available to a select privileged few in the world. When the printing press started turning out multiple copies of the same document, making them available to a wider population, a change was created in the way people communicated, learned, interacted and shared information. What is important to note is the impact the printing press had of people’s ability to communicate in meaningful ways is constantly being duplicated (although no where near the same level) daily with new services, tools and gadgets that are created to help people share words, thoughts and opinions.

Although we act like a revelation has occurred when iBooks is released or someone starts sharing valuable information on LinkedIn, their blog or through a free ebook, we must remember that these types of things have happened before and are really nothing new, only the medium has changed.

Many people will critique, criticize and maim services such as Twitter, iTunes, Facebook and will find faults in the Kindle, iPad and iPhone all in attempts to denounce (modern) social media and its importance (or lack there of) in society. Before taking such a stand they should really look to historical examples to better understand that these types of things and changes are nothing new and that for the most part they are not as negative or “armageddon bringing” as some may lead you to believe. In most cases such technologies, new or old, provide society with positive change.

Wikipedia in its infinite wisdom does little to mention historical examples, focusing primarily on the Internet trying to define a distinction between social and industrial media, and misses the point all together.

If we break social media down and try and understand it at its very root meaning we end up with social interactions through various forms of media/mediums. As times pass the medium will change but social interactions continue to evolve; regardless of time period, technology or people; all of these interactions, the tools used and their overall purposes are grounded in the same principals.

Individuals may argue that what sets modern day social media apart from their historical counterparts is the ability to connect on a global scale. This is a fair and relevant argument. While I certainly agree that this understanding plays an important role in better deciphering the impact social media has had on modern societies I don’t think it sets modern uses of the term apart from historical ones. We must remember that when comparing such things and their impact during different historical periods we need to provide proper context and proportional comparisons to level the ‘playing field’. The world was once considered to be flat resulting in assumptions and attitudes being constructed based on this very idea, once the world became round, all of these assumptions and attitudes changed. Context is powerful in the understanding of any topic and I’d argue that it is as important in the discussion about social media as social media itself.

While some people will define social media as a specific group of services, tools or even try to frame it within a certain time period, most likely recent, I choose personally to look at it in a much broader sense that hopes to incorporate much more of what social media truly entails.

So when asked the question of what the term social media means to me I reply with it being a system comprised of mediums, modes and methods that help to create, foster and sustain a series of meaningful connections among people, places and things that in the end provide value to a given society.