Social media is a fairly new concept.  If you ask most folks under 25 what Social Media means you’ll hear about all the latest contenders like Facebook and Twitter.  If you ask them what came before, you may hear about MySpace, but probably not much before that.

My own experience with social media a bit further back then that.  Back to what’s considered the genesis of social media.  Bulletin Boards were around for a while before I got access to them.  My first computer that could connect with another computer used a 300-baud modem.  This was after modems were cradles for phones, even that was before I started reaching out.

In those days I could connect with other computers by having my phone call their phone.  As I recall, those bulletin boards had a single number or maybe a few numbers to call in to and supported a limited number of folks dialing in.  And given the phone line was a shared resource, all it took was my mom picking up the phone to make a phone call after 9pm to knock me off the connection with that other computer!

At the time I wasn’t doing any chat rooms of any sort so it was typically reading messages posted by other users or posting messages to be read by others.  Often it was on some common subject, usually about things that were interesting to me at the time, which would probably have meant computers or about books and other geeky subjects.

That would have been the early 80s.  When I graduated high school and wandered off to college I got my first email address from the school and it used “bang paths” to provide an addressing mechanism to tell others how to pass email to me if they wanted to send me something.  That email address looked something like this: …!bigsite!foovax!barbox!me.  In that case if the message got to a machine called bigsite, it knew to pass it along to another machine called foovax which then passed it to a machine called barbox on which I had an account.  This would have been in the mid-80s and I don’t recall it lasting longer than when I got out of college in the late 80s.  Around that time I got my first long term email address which was at a now defunct ISP (Internet Service Provider) called Teleport here in Portland.

The Internet, such as it was, was best browsed from a little browser called Mosaic, then Netscape in the early 90s.  Through the 90s we saw the rise of Compuserve and AOL which brought the Internet, even then in an early form, to anyone with a computer.  Facebook and MySpace came along in the early 90s, as well.  Initially MySpace was more popular, especially with the kids.  Facebook was seen, at least initially, as something that was only available to people from particular universities.  This was before it was widely available.  All this is covered in that Facebook movie.

My own kids started with MySpace and I never had any presence there.  I watched what they were doing and I saw my son and daughter pick up a bit of HTML as they customized their pages based on what other folks did.  It was fairly obnoxious and the language used on the site was objectionable but I wasn’t the audience.  It was the kids talking with each other.  And, while I didn’t like it, at least I got it.  It was a semi-private club and it gave them a sense of control over their content and what they said.  Eventually they moved to Facebook as it was considered more “cool” and MySpace started to die off.

At some level it was probably the death of Facebook being cool when it became SO cool that the parents started joining.  And I did join.  Somewhat reluctantly.  I figured it’d be a way to re-connect with folks I’d known when I was younger.  And, while that was true, I’m not sure it was necessarily a great thing.  With only a few exceptions, I reconnected on Facebook with the folks I was still connected with.  And while I did get invites from folks from high school, for the most part, if they were not friends of mine in high school, I really wasn’t interested in knowing what they are now up to.  Thus began the Facebook purge of “Friends” down to something approaching the circle of people I actually know.

This is in distinct contrast to how some of our kids handle Facebook.  One of our kids has over 1400 “Friends”.  Now, while she’s social, there’s no way in creation she actually knows 1400 people to any great degree.  But, that seems to be how the medium is used by our kids generation.  Friend doesn’t require first person contact at all.  It doesn’t even seem that it requires any contact to maintain.

Sure, the reality is that we all have different circles of friends and they imply different levels of “access” or knowledge or contact.  I certainly have close family and friends.  And I have friends.  And I have what I’d consider “work friends” that I might have lunch with and talk with occasionally.  And perhaps I have extended circles of friends with whom I’ve been closer in the past but not kept in close contact with.

I have a certain amount of energy and/or time to invest in my relationships and perhaps I should and could do better but it goes where it goes and after that I trust the situation is similar with those friends and it’s okay.  So, maybe that’s somewhat similar to what Facebook “Friends” mean to our kids.

Twitter is another interesting phenomena in terms of social media.  Originally I looked at it and I totally didn’t get it.  When the service first kicked off it really seemed to be nothing more than a medium to post, as the cliche goes, what I had for breakfast and when I pooped last to a circle of people who had no logical reason to care about any of that.

Since then, Twitter has turned more in to something I recognize.  It’s an asymmetrical communication channel where an individual, most typically someone famous or interesting posts something which is consumed by the folks who subscribe to that information flow.  It’s easy to dip into and out of it, so no real commitment is required.  It can be but doesn’t have to be bi-directional.  It’s great for consuming when you have a few minutes throughout the day.  And while some folks do post for their more immediate friends and subscribers, I believe the truth is most people are consuming or passing along (re-tweeting in the parlance) interesting content because most of us don’t have lives that justify actively tweeting.  So, I think I’ve managed to put Twitter in to a box that I think I understand.

By way of an aside, don’t think for a moment that Twitter is somehow free of the need to make money.  They are already experimenting with Sponsored Tweets inserted unrequested in folks streams.  Also, the huge (some would say enormous) value to be found in Twitter is in analyzing the data from Twitter activity.  What are people talking about?  What’s trending?  Where does popular opinion on a subject stand in the real time?  Again, the value is in the masses using the service who are, by using the service, allowing their content to be used by someone else to create value for advertisers and stock holders.  As they say “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”.  If a service is successful and you’re not paying for it, you just haven’t figured out or thought about who is making money off of you.

I’ve said for a while now that I’m waiting for a thing to come along, either technologically or socially (social media being a subset of that) that I just don’t get.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s inevitable.  New things become harder to adopt or harder to understand as we get older and I know my time is coming.  And the existing conventions and tools rise and fall as they peak in adoption then slowly die off to be replaced by something else that is either better or more holds our interest.

I suspect Facebook has peaked, but that may just be my own bias.

Facebook has tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to get me to do all my messaging inside it, even going so far as to create email addresses for everyone with an account so they can presumably read all their messages inside the application.  But, I will always have people I need to interact with that I don’t want to be connected to on Facebook so that’s not going to happen.

Further, as time goes one, Facebook has transitioned from something that had value, mostly perceived value, to it’s investors, in the form of the number of people who belong.  After it went public it seemed that Facebook has become increasingly intent on treating the users with less respect in favor of the folks who pay the bills, which is the advertisers.  There is truth in the notion that you get what you pay for in a service and Facebook has to make money and they aren’t doing it by charging folks so Facebook must constantly struggle with how much value it can squeeze out of the millions of eyeballs that log in daily without pissing them off.  And for me, they’ve crossed that line.  Between inserting advertisements all over the pages to putting them in-line in the timeline, they continue to try and find ways to put stuff I don’t want to see in front of me.  At that point where that becomes egregious or just irritating enough, I’ll bail on it.  I probably would bail on it now if it were not one of the main ways my kids communicate and communicate with me.  In reality that’s probably the main thing that keeps me on Facebook.  But, my suspicion is that will change in the next few years.

Facebook and Twitter are being touted as the wave of the future in terms of steering content in front of our eyes, presumably because that content is chosen by people we’ve chosen to follow or pay attention to.  But, just because I like an author or someone interesting, that does not mean that what they find interesting is necessarily what I find interesting.  What seems to be lacking is a process for curating “good” content.

Obviously the crux of that sentence is what constitutes good content.  That is, of course, different for everyone.  I suspect there’s a very real opportunity for a company to provide a flexible method for curating content and giving me a great deal of flexibility to determine whether something is interesting, finding other related content and making it easy for me to choose to follow that content or not.  What’s interesting to the folks I follow or am interested in is pertinent, certainly, but it’s not the only factor.

There are other social media tools and outlets out there now, but I don’t imagine any of them are going to be the Next Big Thing.  G+ from Google wants to be a less irritating Facebook, it’s not happening.  Foursquare exists, to all appearances, in case I start to care where folks I know are eating.  Pinterest, in case I care what pictures represent meaningful content to people I know.  Ivy, in case six seconds of video is somehow fascinating.  Instagram for watching pictures from folks I follow.  None of these smack of Killer App.

I wonder what that will be?

I find it interesting how with kids or technology, it’s reasonable to look at the current person or technology and reasonably work your way back to the baby or the genesis of the idea.  It’s so very much harder to go the other way!



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Categories: Writing

1 Comment

Duncan Ellis · March 18, 2013 at 8:05 am

The 1980s bulletin board culture in the US fascinates me just because of its alienness – there were BBS users in Britain, but it was never as pervasive because telephone calls for the modem connection were so expensive. Most access numbers were in large cities (specifically London) which meant a long distance call for anyone not living in that metropolitan area, and even if you happened to live close to a city the local call was not free.

When I finally got an Internat connection in 1994 I remember vividly that I chose to spend more on a faster modem because I would make the money back in shorter phone calls for the same amount of data.

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