Social media changes what people say, and want, and expect

As part of the preparation for yesterday’s post The art of social is starting to become a science I read a post from Joel Spolsky from back in 2004 in which he discusses how user interface of communications and networking services impacts what is said and how users behave.

Here are three of his examples:

1. Text messages

let’s look at a successful social interface. Many humans are less inhibited when they’re typing than when they are speaking face-to-face. Teenagers are less shy. With cellphone text messages, they’re more likely to ask each other out on dates. That genre of software was so successful socially that it’s radically improving millions of people’s love lives (or at least their social calendars). Even though text messaging has a ghastly user interface, it became extremely popular with the kids. The joke of it is that there’s a much better user interfacebuilt into every cellphone for human to human communication: this clever thing called "phone calls." You dial a number after which everything you say can be heard by the other person, and vice versa. It’s that simple. But it’s not as popular in some circles as this awkward system where you break your thumbs typing huge strings of numbers just to say "damn you’re hot," because that string of numbers gets you a date, and you would never have the guts to say "damn you’re hot" using your larynx.

2. ebay

When I first heard about ebay, I said, "Nonsense! That will never work. Nobody’s going to send money to some random person they encountered on the Internet in hopes that person will out of the goodness of their hearts actually ship them some merchandise." A lot of people thought this. We were all wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Ebay made a big bet on the cultural anthropology of human beings and won.

3. Usenet

Usenet clients have this big-R command which is used to reply to a message while quoting the original message with those elegant >’s in the left column. And the early newsreaders were not threaded, so if you wanted to respond to someone’s point coherently, you had to quote them using the big-R feature. This led to a particularly Usenet style of responding to an argument: the line-by-line nitpick. It’s fun for the nitpicker but never worth reading. (By the way, the political bloggers, newcomers to the Internet, have reinvented this technique, thinking they were discovering something fun and new, and called itfisking, for reasons I won’t go into. Don’t worry, it’s not dirty.) Even though human beings had been debating for centuries, a tiny feature of a software product produced a whole new style of debating.

2004 was not only the year that Joel gave these examples, it was also the year that Facebook was founded, and since then we have seen a revolution in how people communicate with each other and increasingly with brands, companies and governments.

Reading these examples it becomes clear that when people are using Facebook and Twitter they will be saying (and therefore expecting) different things than if they were to pick up the phone.  Putting it differently, the old processes of communication won’t map cleanly onto communication using Facebook, Twitter etc. 

In the person to person arena this newness in the nature and content of discussion on social media, and ultimately the different behaviours of social media users, is what provokes the fear and distrust from other, typically older, parts of society.  Put simply they have no context by which they can understand what is going on, and worse, when they make the natural mistake of thinking about how those behaviours would have played out over old media the conclusions aren’t pretty.

For enterprises the implication is that the nature of engagement with customers changes.  A lot has been written already about the impact on brands and marketing – mostly focused on the need for brands to have integrity and engage in value added dialogue.  Going forward we will start to see similar changes in customer service and other enterprise processes like recruitment, and our belief that agile startups are best placed to help drive these changes is part of why we recently invested in Conversocial.  The interesting question now is how do we drive them fast.

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