Monday, May 12, 2008

Social Network to Internet = Phone to phone lines

A little more on this.

Tools are important things. The telephone didn't change the way we communicate until it was in the hands of the majority - and until that majority was comfortable using it.

It moved from being an odd piece of high technology (left, Alexander Graham Bell with the one he patented) to being a familiar tool. We certainly needed all the phone lines in place for this to happen. But we also needed a really easy way for us to understand how to use them - an interface.

Once we had both, everything changed; from how fast news travels through networks, to how widely it gets distributed, to how many bank clerks and insurance salesmen need to be employed (witnessed through the dread edifice the 'call centre'). Emergency services, journalism, military activity, shop delivery systems, politics... you name it, the ubiquity of the telephone as a tool alongside a wide network to make that tool useful, changed our world.

Telephone wires aren't a tool, they are the medium. The handsets are the tools.

Ok, so what difference does this make? Well, I'm starting to wonder if we haven't been a little bit guilty of heralding the new era wrought by the internet a little too early. What we really meant was the new era ushured in by the ubiquity of the tool that is making all the difference - the social network.

What I'm suggesting is that social networks are to the internet what the handset is to the wires of the phone network. And just to avoid confusion - I'm talking about the fixed line phone for now. They are the interface which allows the majority of people to access the disruptive power of the network.

I know that email 'newslists' and forums have been with us since deep into last century. But there was a reason people who used them were considered 'geeky' and 'nerdy'. You had to be of a particular type to early adopt. They were flat two-dimensional implementations brought with us from a flat broadcast world.

Social networks have been spluttering into existence since about 1995 but they certainly weren't ubiquitous back then. It took lesson-learning and the explosion of broadband to move them into the 'familiar tool' category.

By 2005 MySpace was clocking up more page impressions than google.
This perhaps marks the watershed in the move out of 'geek' and into 'familiar tool' for social networks.

Social networks reveal to the users the new and very disruptive low overhead cost of forming groups. Easy-to-use social networks reveal this, and allow large numbers of people to experience this, in ways that previous connecting software and technologies could not match.

And as more and more people become more and more familiar with the power of the network through the familiar tool of the social network, so the disruption will bite deeper - the one that will remove the mediators in supply chain after supply chain as new networks form supply and demand webs.

You could argue people were using social networks before. But the difference may be that users of YouTube, eBay, whatever were not explicitly using them to form groups of purpose - they were a byproduct of their primary activities (sharing videos and buying and selling).

The 'familiar tool' social networks (of which facebook appears to me the easiest to use and best at revealing its group forming nature) do a different job. They put group-forming at their heart. They allow the user to dial D for disruption the moment they start a group.

How fast does the change happen when ubiquity arrives? I spoke at EPublishing last week, where Vin Crosbie gave the keynote. Vin showed pictures of a London street just before the internal combustion engine became ubiquitous. Streets filled with horses, a transport infrastructure to support all those horses, how far and how fast people goods and ideas travelled controlled by those horses. 20 years later the horse was all but gone from London's streets.

What do you expect the pace of disruption to be in the digital space in the 21st Century?
Consider this. YouTube launched from scratch a little over 3 years ago. How differently do we think about TV three years on?

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?