We live in amazing times. Social media is transforming communications in ways unimaginable just a couple of decades ago. We often read about the accelerating pace of innovation, but nowhere is this more pronounced than in the world of communications.
Our human species originated, ballpark, 250,000 years ago. Written language wasn’t developed (other than the odd cave painting) until roughly 6,000 years ago. So, for the first 244,000 years of human existence, a person’s ability to communicate with others was limited to those they could come into direct contact with, literally within earshot.
Writing expanded the ability to communicate, but limited education and the need to manually copy every text still severely limited distribution. Johannes Gutenberg, the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, invented his printing press in 1440. (Gutenberg didn’t “invent” printing any more than Zuckerberg really invented social networking—online forums and chat rooms existed long before Facebook—but like Zuckerberg’s, his creation popularized the medium.) So for roughly the first 4,500 years of the existence of written language, there was no ability to mass produce written documents.
The telegraph came along in about 1800, allowing for the first time the transmission of messages instantly across large distances. The cost and specialized knowledge involved, however, severely limited its utility as well as the length of messages that could be practically sent. 75 years later, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and for the first time, speech could be transmitted, by everyday people (or at least by those who could afford a telephone), beyond the limits of one’s immediate vicinity. People had been verbally communicating with each in other, in some shape or form, for roughly 249,875 years before their voices could be heard directly beyond their physical location.
Meanwhile, printing presses evolved and got more sophisticated over time, and Xerox came out with its photocopier in the 1950s, but until the advent of computers and low-cost, high quality laser printers in the late 1980’s, it was a common expression that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”
I was personally involved in development of one of the first true high-resolution laser printers, the Printware 720 IQ, in the late 1980s. It took a few more years for prices to come down and color to be added, but for the first time—5,990 years after the development of the written word—anyone could publish documents that looked like they came off of a printing press.
Still, distribution was an issue. It was costly to send out printed documents, you could send them only to your known contact list, and they weren’t searchable by the general population.
The Internet, and specifically blogging software, solved these issues. But blogging takes work, as people discovered, which is why of the more than 150 million blogs that have been launched, PR and social media monitoring software firm Vocus tracks only about 20 million. After much research, that was the number of blogs that were active and not merely scrapers or spam blogs (“splogs”) that publish search-engine-friendly gibberish in the hope of making money off AdWords.
Now, finally, 6,000 years after the written word, 570 years after the printing press, 200 years after the telegraph, 130 years after the telephone, 20 years after the high-res laser printer, and 10 years or so after blogs began—social media tools like Facebook, Digg, LinkedIn and Twitter have thoroughly democratized communications and freed it from limitations of time and space. One can find and communicate with communities of like-minded individuals anywhere on earth in seconds. Such communication isn’t limited to spoken or written words but can include images and video. The messages are searchable and (for all practical purposes) publicly available, so if the content is compelling enough, anyone can find it, and share it, making the communication even more powerful.
Social media is being embraced by marketers, of course, but it’s much larger than that. The democratization of communication is fueling the democratization of life, even in countries with a long history of totalitarian rule. It’s impossible to say where the changes will lead, but the final destination of social media itself may be more predictable.