Social media has done a lot of things, from connecting long lost friends (whether or not they wanted to be connected), to somehow convincing your mother to farm from her web browser.
It also makes it simple to find information, collaborate on projects, and store content in a virtual private library you curate on your own. But one silent effect of social media is the way it has tamed the internet.
The internet used to be a series of connected content—thus the inter part—that allowed the publishing of informative or commercial interests. Provided you knew the URL, much like an alphanumeric phone number.
That’s where Google came in. While there is some confusion[i] as to the exact birthdate, Google emerged in the late 1990s as a way for people to find information. This idea of a “search engine” hit mainstream, and the internet essentially became useless without Google. That’s not to say that it would not have survived without it; in the vacuum of a missing Google, something else would’ve emerged to guide our way around. As it is, the internet has a kind of ecology to it, and so when one thing exists, everything else is affected.
1. Ending The Search Engine Era
Facebook officially began February 4, 2004[ii] as “thefacebook,” and in August 2005 the domain “facebook.com” was purchased for a paltry sum of $200,000[iii]. Within a year, Facebook and MySpace were being used by up to 90% of college students[iv], and as of December 2011 it has approaching 900,000,000 active users[v], and should surpass a billion sometime in 2012.
A billion. Active. Users. For. A. Single. Website.
So of course, Google would respond. Enter Google+. A lot can be inferred from Google’s hurried assembly of Google+-, the Mountain View, California company’s late entry into the social media game, primarily the absolute necessity of complete social media integration. This is not a trend, nor even a new dynamic, but rather a new internet.
Non-social digital media are left to breathe on their own without the native, living, breathing context social components supply, something Google perhaps valued too late. Google has realized that age of search-results-as-commodity is threatened when information access is crowd-sourced, an idea acknowledged with the dynamic auto-complete added to search results in 2008[vi]. The revised autocomplete feature “suggests” searches based on what others have searched for in the past using Google’s advanced algorithm.
Though not directly social, it added a wrinkle to searching that gave it new life. But times they are a’changin’. In mid-2009, the average time per visitor in the U.S. on Facebook.com surpassed that spent on “Google sites” (i.e., sites found via Google), and in 2012 Facebook use could double that of Google-sourced sites–which is, the whole rest of the internet.[vii].
We very well may be headed towards the erosion of the internet, and the beginning of the socialnet, fully warped by the intense gravity of social media sites like twitter and facebook.
2. Embracing Transparency
With the extraordinary emergence of social media platforms, internet use is now fully transparent for a very active percentage of the internet. Issues of identity theft, seedy content, and inadvertently damaged reputations have many cautious users continue to prefer anonymity while connected, never shopping online, using alias usernames, and completely separating their life online and off.
Still, other users have fully embraced this concept of transparency, carefully cultivating an online image that itself is connected to global networks of like-minded folks whose common ground is entirely digital. Through social media, digital portfolios communicate for these users as actively as words and sentences, allowing for a very visible demonstration of skills and expertise that a resume or even in-person interview could never provide.
And with the emergence of competition-friendly APIs, social media players have smartly avoided competition, allowing your Linkedin, twitter, Facebook, and Google+ platforms to all “talk” to one another. Twitter updates can be automatically absorbed by Linkedin, and Blog content can be posted right to your Facebook wall. In this way, each can fill a niche without being hunted by “competition.” There is also the practice of sharing, “liking,” and “+1”s. In the social media world, your interests are on display for everyone, whether by choice (joining a Linkedin or Facebook group), or indirectly (Google finds everything). In this context, users begin to–often via game mechanics–seek out transparency, a boom for Facebook, and a boon for the corporate world.
Through this kind of mutual interest and quasi-integration, transparency was inevitable.
3. Generational Inclusion
Perhaps the most spectacular way social media tamed the internet was by appealing to the mainstream. And not the trendy, upstart, San Francisco mainstream, but a truly large swath of the population. If grandmothers want to see pictures of their grandkids, they’d have to use Facebook. The quickest way to speak to your mother may no longer be a phone call—which ties you both up for 20 minutes—but rather a Facebook message.
The transparency of communication disrobed public discourse in great part, moving away from the isolation of email, or the way the ideas of a phone call dissovled the moment you hung up. Social media curates both communication and relationship patterns, something too tempting for families to turn away from. Collaborative gaming—not through Steam, Playstation, or Xbox but through the same platform you just “liked” an image and responded to a video through—also gave a playful tone to social media that not only demystified gaming, but defused the sense among an older generation that these platforms were a “waste of time,” and an “invasion of privacy,” akin to inviting a child into a van with a lollipop.
Certainly the internet continues to have an underbelly.
It is itself a reflection of culture, and the more “able” and diverse it becomes, the more accurately it will reflect societal trends and values. There is also the phenomenon of the tail wagging the dog, where the internet doesn’t simply passively reflect, but actively shape. Regardless, through connecting content, creating transparency, and appealing to a broad set of users, the internet—to whatever degree is possible—has been forever altered by the addition of lively human interaction, and carefully constructed digital avatars that have personalized interaction, and documented your digital footprints forever.
Image attribution flickr users lukehayfieldphotography, seeminglee, and sfllaw; This article was originally written by Terry Heick for Edudemic Magazine