Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Social Media: Everything Old is New Again

I thoroughly enjoyed an article by Greg Verdino on The Customer Connection. Greg's post, "Hate to tell you, but Web 1.0 was social too", asks if Web 2.0 "is really that different from so-called Web 1.0." He reminisces about the early days of the Internet when "You didn't log on for content (there wasn't much to be had) or commerce (for the most part, nobody was selling much of anything over the web)," but instead to participate in chat rooms, discussion forums, message boards, and the like. He ends by asking: "Are we overestimating the extent to which social media has truly changed the web?"

I'd answer Greg's question by affirming that we are not overestimating the importance of Social Media, but I have to admit that I didn't start out as a Social Media convert. At first I rejected that Web 2.0 was anything new. It took me some time to appreciate that Social Media is a significant new trend because, like Greg, my initial involvement in the Internet was motivated by the exact same needs and desires that drive today's Social Media.

Ironically, just last week I shared with Social Media Today's Jerry Bowles how my own introduction to social media didn't happen in the past few years but instead occurred in 1993. If you'll join me in a brief trip back in time, you may understand why Greg and I see Social Media less as something new and more as an evolution of something old. Let's hop into Bill and Ted's phone booth for a trip back fifteen years.

Welcome to 1993. Bill Clinton was just inaugurated and a gal named Monica has yet to move from Oregon to Washington, DC to become a White House intern. Jurassic Park is the highest-grossing movie ever. People are trying to figure out what it is Meatloaf won't do for love. And three unknowns named Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera were just selected to join the cast of The New Mickey Mouse Club.

Something you may note as you stroll through 1993 is that there is no Internet, at least not the way you think of it today. Just about the only people using the Internet are at universities and government agencies, and few homes have a PC.

But here in the home of Augie Ray you will find a PC. You will also find an angry wife, since the only way Augie can connect to his online service, Prodigy, is to detach the only phone in the house and run a 50-foot cord from his computer desk to the home's single phone jack. She's also upset because Augie just got his first $150 bill from Prodigy for the excessive minutes accumulated connected to the service.

The reason that bill was so expensive is that I spent a lot of time in the Disney Fans Bulletin Board (DFBB). I've always been a right brain/left brain fan of Disney—my right brain loves the movies and the experience of the theme parks, and my left brain respects the management, quality, training, human resources, and brand management that have made Disney a success. I was so deeply involved in the DFBB that I was offered a role as a moderator (which was especially good news because it meant free Prodigy access). Before we depart 1993, please take note that I was part of a vibrant online community and was responsible for community moderation.

Let's hop back into the time machine and move forward to the year 1994. Everyone is repeating Forrest Gump's motto, "Life is like a box of chocolates," and Kurt Cobain's death is sending shockwaves through Gen X.

This is the year that Prodigy opens up its service to the Internet. I am immediately taken with the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for Disney with an even wider audience, so I begin to learn HTML and to develop simple Disney fan sites. One of these sites is a Disney news site that I update virtually every day with information I find or am sent by Disney. I won't be familiar with the term for another decade, but back in 1994 I was blogging.

One last stop on our trip through history: 1995. A new studio named Pixar is wowing everybody with the most amazing computer animation in a film called "Toy Story" and OJ Simpson tries on a pair of gloves in court and finds they do not fit.

In Spring 1995, I receive an invitation to attend Walt Disney World's 25th anniversary kickoff party and media event. Wanting to share my experiences with the many folks who visit my Disney sites, I hatch a plan to report live from the event. I rent a very early version of a digital camera, borrow a laptop, and head to Orlando for three whirlwind days. Each evening I upload a trip diary complete with photos of the newest attractions. I may not be the first person to "Livegblog," but it will be many years until it becomes common for Web users to share video, photos, and descriptions as the events are occurring.

In the years that follow, big business and media climb aboard the Internet bandwagon, and soon more people are surfing corporate-owned Web sites than are participating in chat rooms, visiting online forums, or surfing to personal Web sites. The early commercial Internet, which started so social, quickly began to look much like traditional media with large media companies providing content to consumers.

This is why it took me a while to warm to the suggestion that Web 2.0 was new; for me, the idea of participating in online communities, sharing digital news and opinion, forming online friendships, regularly updating site information for others to read, and enjoying others' user-generated content was more than a decade old. In short, the Internet always was a place where people connected with each other!

Of course, what is different between 1995 and 2008--and what defines today's Social Media--is that the ease of the tools have put power in the hands of more people. Back in the 90s, many of my hours were spent trying to get my HTML to render appropriately and, even though I really wanted to add the ability for others to leave comments on my Web site, the backend programming to do so was simply beyond my capabilities. Today, a person can create the framework for a dynamic and robust community with little to no special skills; the least technical person can do more in an evening than I could have accomplished with months of dedication back in 1995.

I've since seen the light (obviously), and I agree Web 2.0 is a new phenomenon, if for no other reason than the prevalence of Social Media throughout the Web and across all demographic categories. But, that doesn't mean Greg, I, and other early Internet adopters are completely wrong about Social Media being nothing new. Today's Social Media may be a flowering garden, but the seeds were planted more than a decade ago.


Jeremy said...

Great post! It seems that the masses are reclaiming the internet as their own. As you point out, the early internet was about conversations and niche publishers until big business and media jumped in. Do you think this could be cyclical? Will big business and media be able to push their way into "Web 2.o" to the extent they did "Web 1.0?" Will people be reading blogs, Twitter posts, and Facebook profiles for their favorite brands more than those of their favorite friends and colleagues?

Augie Ray said...


That is a spectacularly interesting question you just asked. My inclination is to say that big media and business will try to control and own as much of Web 2.0 as possible, but I don't think they can. It's too distributed, too controlled by consumers, and prone to quick shifts in consumer loyalty when they perceive marketing has become too prominent.

It will be interesting to see what happens, though!