Why the rise in use of social media tools and the glut in coverage? The increase in coverage is part topic pile-on, a me-to rush to what is hot. It is also part reality, the trend is real and the dialog around what it means is important.
But why the trend? Hw did we get here? And what do we need to understand to navigate in this space?
I think (I hope) the technical reasons are known. The proliferation of cheap, easy-to-use tools that rely on standards, such as RSS and tags, to work together has allowed for the explosion in user-generated content and online social networks.
But what about the social reasons? Why are people using these tools in the manner that they are? I see three trends that have been driven by the Internet and have also driven the social media trend.
Far more people believe their personal experience and point-of-view not only should be made available to others but will be valued by others than at any time. The examples are everywhere, from “American Idol” to YouTube to Flickr. It is more than just shooting for 15 minutes of fame. People expect are growing to expect a sustained public voice. It has become part of the fabric of some people’s self image and self-worth.
This is a natural companion trend to exhibitionism. People enjoy watching the extremely personal content generated by their peers and of celebrities, public officials, and business leaders. They not only enjoy it, the feel it is their right to see it.
The Decline of Formality.
With the trends in exhibitionism and voyeurism comes a decline in formality and civility. Because people feel that their voice counts they expect direct access to others, no matter who they are. They expect dialog with elected officials, business executives, their physicians, and others in a way that we could not have imagined even 15 years ago. Bloggers write open letters to CEOs, calling them by their first name and inviting them to backyard barbeques. And that is a tame example.
With this erosion of formal distance has come an erosion in civility. Online discourse is more than just conversational and informal, at times it is shockingly uncivil. This can not be blamed solely on the ability to remain anonymous. More and more online anonymity is less feasible, and in a society that values exhibitionism it is less desirable.
These trends fuel the growth of social media and consumer generated content. They also challenge the norms of organizations, executives, public officials, and the communications professionals that advise and support them. But it is the new reality, one that requires our immersion, understanding, and counsel.