«Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.»

Warren Buffet

In the first part of this series, I illuminated what I believe to be the important first steps of electronic social media (that is, social groups created and maintained primarily through computers). In this conclusion, I trace how social media moved beyond the technically savvy and privileged to the rest of us.

The term World Wide Web is rarely used anymore and that’s a shame. The Web, a system of interconnected HTML documents retrieved through the HTTP protocol, is mass transit system of nearly all modern electronic communication that travels over the Internet. I suppose its a kind of compliment that when most folks refer to the Web, they call it the “Internet” (or “netternet” or “interwebs”). Whatever it’s called, the system that allowed for the creation and proliferation of web sites allowed for the next generation.

For many, the Web was a kind of Graphic User Interface to the Internet. In a sense, everything that had been invented for UNIX needed to be brought into the world of personal computers (including UNIX itself in the form of Linux and *BSD). Is it a surprise that the twenty year old unix utility came back in the form of AOL’s Instant Message in the late nineties? Not to me. If an earlier generation had lived socially through email, there was now a younger generation that lived on IM or ICQ. Mobile phones, which already had SMS messaging, began supporting IM directly so that you could always text chat with your friends when when you were away from your computer. IM is mostly a 1-1 connection. That is, one person chating with only one other person. Another limitation of IM is that the conversation were private and generally impermanent. For private conversations, that’s probably OK, but clearly there was a market for more.

While some folks were making dinner plans over IM, others were journaling their rage through weblogs. Weblogs, for those recently revived coma victims, are a form of website built to be updated with new content frequently. The writing staff of blogs can be as small as one person or as many as dozens (or thousands in the case of kuro5hin, slashdot, digg, metafilter, etc). What makes blogs social is the commenting system that allows readers to respond to particular blog posts. Moreover, bloggers will reference the posts of other blogs. Being web pages, blogs are long-term publications that can be referred to in the future through search engines. Blogs exploded in the first part of the first decade of the twenty first century and now (2010) look to seriously challenge and even replace a large number of traditional print media organizations. Of couse, someone needs to figure out how to incorporated an editorial staff into blogs at some point, but that’s a different article.

2002 saw the quiet beginnings of websites that were something both less and more than blogs. Sites like Friendster and MySpace were designed for what I’ll call “small updates.” A user might upload a picture or a song along with a brief updated on what they were doing to a “profile page.” User content was limited to one page. Rarely would these posts be longer than a few sentences.

The real value of these sites was that they allowed users to identify connections with other users on the system. This is the beginning of web-based social networks, which is a bit of a dehumanizing term. A network is a system of nodes connected by routes. In social networking, you are a node. Your value, at least to marketers, was the number of your connections rather than the content of your profile.

However, the value of social networks to users was to build a broadcast system to a community of your friends (i.e. trusted contacts). This notion is quiet powerful and would continue its evolution in a web site designed to bring together academics. That site is Facebook. Facebook took all of the elements of social media that had been developed in other site and made user status updates private (by default). This element of exclusivity at first seems paradoxical, but many user want to limit the scope of their broadcasting. Facebook provides an excellent vehicle for this.

I would like to note that the blogging site LiveJournal also has an interesting feature to limit the visibility of posts using “locks”. LJ posts are generally publically visible, but locked posts are visible only to friends.

There seems to be a lot of mileage to be had by limiting the functionality of blogs. If Facebook limits the scope of broadcasting, Twitter limits the length of posts. Twitter is a bit like a UNIX system log. It receives short updates from multiple programs. Any UNIX admin will tell you the utility of reading the system log. It’s a snapshot of the current state of the system. In the same way, Twitter is not a media of deep intellectually pondering. It’s a system that captures the zeitgeist of its users.

Twitter and Facebook operate as very different social media engines. Facebook (and linkedIn for that matter) are tools that identify existing relationships. Twitter encourages browsing for new friends.

And that’s where social media is today. The web expanding the reach of social networks by removing a lot of the technical requirements of its users. It’s hard to see what the next step for social media will be. I suspect it will be in the realm of mobile devices. Perhaps some kind of location-based ad-hoc social network. Perhaps there is value is creating networks of networks. The future is now.