The Untold History of Social Media

I gave a short presentation on "The Untold History of Social Media" at a national seminar on  "The Role of Social Media in Democracy" in Hyderabad. The seminar was organized by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, MICCI, COVA & Dot Now Social

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process right from the preparation to the intellectually stimulating discussions by distinguished participants which included professors, journalists of high repute and media researchers. Unlike several conferences which often degenerate into marketing spiel for Social Media, thanks to orgasmic numbers thrown everywhere on users, Social Media Nations et al, I felt this seminar critically examined this emerging medium, warts and all. Going by the live tweets during the conference and the feedback I received from fellow participants and audience, I thought my presentation was well received.  While I have uploaded the deck with a rough transcript of the talk in slide notes, I thought I would post a detailed account of my presentation here with reference links for further reading. 

I intend to present a broad perspective on the history of Social Media within the larger context of democracy and then look at some of the critical shifts that have taken place in the world of communication. 

So what is the current state of the world as I see it?

Imagine a gigantic system powered by  complex, multi-causal, interconnected forces.  This Industrial civilization system has been running well for the last 150 years. However, over the last few decades the  discomforting truth about this system has been revealed. The Operating System is about to collapse. The truth is hard to fathom. Sooner than later, the entire system will come to a standstill and we will have to press Ctrl + Alt + Del again. Once you press the reset button, every governing institution would have to be rebuilt. The system has been chugging along, showing symptoms of breakdown in isolated segments over the last few decades.  During 2008, it suffered a major blow with the financial crisis affecting several lives.

The consequences of pressing Ctrl + Alt +Del are beyond our imagination. We still have some time left to find a way to lessen the impact of this disaster. This is one of the greatest moments in our history as we have the potential to rebuild everything from scratch. That includes rebuilding democracy as well, exorcised from the ghosts of the past. While some of you may argue with me on the scale of change, the need for change just cannot be dismissed.  Our democratic system has also been under tatters, caught in a self-destructing loop by the pernicious forces of the free market system. The system lacks proper representation with enlightened understanding, not just from the countries trapped under totalitarian governments but also from tribes living in remote forests,  sacred groves and ecosystems which have ensured that our environments are stable enough to lead comfortable lives. 

Media plays a strong role in providing representation for voices ought to be heard in a proper functioning democracy.

With no academic background in historical study, I think it would be fair to start with a simple question:Why bother studying about the history of Social Media?

Especially, when the ephemeral world of Social Media changes in a matter of few random likes, clicks and shares, it seems like a futile exercise. I remember, much to my astonishment, hearing a 15 year old kid saying that Facebook and Twitter are for the older generation. Historians have often told us that history enables us to interpret past and understand patterns. Interpreting the past is often jettisoned by the gale force which surrounds nowness and constant change . Understanding patterns definitely makes sense as it is often touted to be one of the critical skills required for survival in the twenty-first century. 

I found a wonderful metaphor to look at history when I read the fascinating book on World History, Guns, Germs &Steel  by Jared Diamond.

When we begin to look at history as an onion, of course, your eyes begin to irritate and tears roll down your eyes..! As you peal the layers of history, you come across depressing stories of people who zealously devoted their lives in the pursuit of an idea/invention. Heart rending stories of people who never got the credit they deserved just because the time wasn't right. As you begin to decide on someone as a pioneer for an invention , you come across pioneers whom the world never bothered to notice. Needless to say that you are left with nothing in the end having pealed all the layers.  

This act of pealing the layers is useful for two reasons. Firstly, It helps in debunking the popular myth around history that it is all about those heroic figures who determined to find an answer to a problem.  We fail to notice that there were several people who were pioneers in their own right. For instance, we know about Tim Berners Lee. But how many of us know Ted Nelson who originally coined the term hypertext? Or Paul Otlet who invented Universal Decimal Classification and envisioned the Web in 1934?

Invention is the mother of necessity

 Our minds are often swayed by “Necessity is the mother of invention” mindset which makes us look at most of the inventors responding valiantly to the needs of the society.   The reality is different. In several technological developments, it is the case of Invention being  the mother of necessity. Amongst several  cases, the one I want to point out here is Twitter.

Once Twitter came into being, it’s the users who determined its multifarious  uses , be it something as useful as updates during moments of crisis as we saw in Haiti Earthquake or something as trivial as telling what you ate for breakfast in the morning. The inventors of Twitter couldn’t have come up with all the ways the tool is now being used for. Technology growth has always been auto catalytic. In simple terms, technology begets more technology. It speeds up evolution. While the first changes often happen in larger steps, as technology accelerates evolution, the changes grow exponentially faster. This is so evident in the Social Media Ecosystem with the time it took for people to embrace the tools and the widespread proliferation of the tools that came out of Twitter. 

So what is the starting point in history where we can see the first signs of humans trying to communicate with fellow human beings? 

I want to take you to the Ice Age, approximately 25000 to 35000 years ago. We were hunter-gatherers, hunting wild animals and foraging for roots and berries.  As Alex Wright explains in his research, the Earth experienced huge environmental changes, hunter-gatherers began living closer and devised methods of growing food.  This transition is very critical for the development of technology as sedentary living was sine-qua-non for its growth and development. Remember this crucial shift as we would come back to this point again to see how history repeats itself.  

When hunter-gatherers came in close contact with each other, they carried their  social identities through symbols. Prehistoric women wore jewels to indicate their social status. We can see such behavior today in the walls of Facebook where there is an innate urge to change our profile status to Married or In a relationship or, perhaps, the most precise  description of all, Its complicated. 
Let us now fast forward several thousand years to land up at 1450 AD. Gutenberg  invented the printing press. Luther's 99 theses was the first document to go viral. It was posted on the wall of Wittenburg Church. It spread to Germany and then  across the entire Europe. It led to Protestant reformation movement and the birth of Scientific method. 

Fast forwarding hundred years ahead, the era of broadcast began. It started with the idea that if you  extend the market beyond the local, you can't really have one-to-one conversation. The growth of currency enabled businesses to deal on a standardized platform at a larger market scale. With upfront access to capital and information, businesses could get means of production and broadcast. 

What is broadcast? It was essentially one talking to many. However, if you observe carefully, it was essentially no one talking with none. The communication seemed real. It was unidirectional unlike the chaos that prevailed in the real world. We can see this model in the way seminars are held and auditoriums are designed. There is a podium/dais and the speaker often speaks to a passive audience without much feedback on what the audience are thinking. 
So what has changed?  Communication has undergone a huge shift. It is nothing short of a revolution. What do you see now in communication?  It is immediate. It is real. It is personal. It is volitional. 

During the year 1985, Neil Postman wrote a sharp critique on the Television culture of America, in his book, Amusing Ourselves to death, which reduced every mode of discourse to sensationalism and entertainment. Be it politics, sports, or religion, this debasement is quite evident everywhere. This was perhaps, an unintended consequence of a dramatic change which occurred in our modes of public conversation. One of the lens through which we could look at this problem  is through our understanding of the content and context in the case of television. Television channels were constrained by the limitations of the context provided by the channel, imposing restrictions owing to  profit motives. Television channels had to insert an advertisement in regular time periods between the shows in order to sustain themselves.

What is happening now?
As content became digitized, it transcended the limits imposed by the medium. In other words, content became subservient to context. The digital context had enough and more bandwidth to encompass every form of media content.  This is the first time in history when content became subservient to context. Once context was created, it became possible to build in content.  Two years back, I and my friend made an open source movie trilogy called Web Brahman, which looked at the Past, Present and Future of the Web.  Inspired by the Open source movement and copy left movies like Sita Sings the Blues, we made the movie in a span of few weeks and screened it in an auditorium for a niche audience. This wouldn't have been possible before. The entire movie is available for free in You tube

I want to now look deeper into the democratizing aspect of this new medium. In the Old Era, segments played a critical role in the way marketers looked at customers. Marketers loved calling the customer groups as segments because it was inconvenient to deal directly with the customer. Segments made them faceless customers herded  together by warped marketing logic.  Thanks to the advent of Social Media, segment is now dead. Every customer is an individual. Companies and Governments have no choice but to live with it.

Network has become the fundamental unit which defines the customer and the citizen. When the fundamental unit is a complex entity, it is difficult to mess around. When  network becomes the unit, it becomes difficult to apply false identities like segments to it. Because information is infinitely available, you can verify whether this information is true or not.  Have you noticed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to lie in Facebook? True democratization happens when the node is the fundamental unit.

The jaded cliche of all times: History repeats itself. We are now beginning to see the possibilities of leading a digital nomadic life. Technology, whose origins and development necessitated sedentary living, permits us now to lead nomadic lives like our early ancestors. This shift has been facilitated by technology's ability to treat work as a verb rather than as a noun. 

What really inspires me about technology is that it has provided means for humans' altruistic nature to manifest in the most demanding situations. What you see here is the Photo restoration project in Tohoku, Japan. When  the Tsunami struck Japan,  lives and properties were destroyed. So were memories.  Several  volunteers decided to take action to preserve the memories. They created a site where they uploaded the damaged photographs and  joined hands to restore them with the help of their Photoshop skills. They ensured that the memories remained intact.

Concluding note:
Technology is not going to solve all our problems. We have all the information available. Yet, we haven't found a solution to several critical problems which plague our lives.  Often technology is assumed to be the cause of change. It is  simply a consequence of change. Technology by itself doesn't know to do good for the society until we decide to something out of it .In the light of the recent uprising movements in Arab, there have been lots of debates about whether Social Media is the cause of revolutions. Our journey with technology is an ongoing one with trade offs that we aren't even aware of. While information asymmetry is almost coming to an end, wisdom asymmetry still prevails. I would like to end with these  wonderful words of wisdom by Thoreau.

 Technology is an improved means to an unimproved end