11/06/2008

What is the real aim of social media?

We are connectingWe get so caught up in the pros and cons of individual services that we forget to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves exactly what we are trying to achieve with social media. What is the purpose behind it and why do we devote our time to using it?

The simplest answer is this: getting people connected. No matter how you want to dress it up this is what we are trying to do. Whether it be connecting people to information, businesses or each other the connection is at the core of everything we are trying to do.

These connections are not limited to just being online, in fact our goal should be to carry our connections away from the computer and into real life.

Television

Alexander van Elsas wrote a post on yesterday arguing that the humble television is actually the most effective social media channel we have to date. What? I hear you cry! TV doesn't fall in to our cosy definitions of what a social service should be so what is Alexander going on about?

The act of watching television may often be a very singular and individual pastime - especially with households having more than one TV set - but it is not theat act that we are interested in. Alexander used the example of a major sporting event to demonstrate how television will create a link between people and parts of the community who would not normally associate with each other. Spectator sport is about just that: the spectators. It is the sense of belonging we get when we are involved in something bigger than us that we know hundreds, thousands, if not millions of other people are experiencing.

It doesn't stop there, however. While gathering in pubs and bars, and even in public spaces when large screens have been erected, to watch an event with your peers is an obvious connected at the time of the event we can also look to the after effects, the water cooler moments that are generated by our normal viewing habits and not just large sporting occasions.

We like to build common ground with our friends, peers and colleagues and television can help us do this. We are social animals and like nothing better than to discuss the minutiae of our favourite soap operas, drama series, or the documentary that just blew our minds.

Building bridges

Ryan over at Tilling the Soil talks about social media building bridges between individuals in order to avoid the need to catch up; if you are communicating online then you already know the "what have you been doing" parts of the conversation so can move straight to the good stuff. This is okay for people who already know one another but it about relative strangers? It is often difficult to engage in small talk without a common interest - television fills the gap and gives us something to discuss where there would normally be uncomfortable pauses.

It may be argued that television is killing the art of conversation - and unchecked there is no doubt that this can be the case - but it can also be argued that that the box in the corner of our rooms encourages different conversations, perhaps not the ones we may have had in the past, but wider ranging conversations with potentially more people (a gathering at work or school instead of a couple of members of the family).

The ability of this medium to act as an ice breaker cannot be underestimated and the real challenge for 'social media' is how to replicate this type of behaviour. Granted, television has had time to become integrated in to our lives but it too started small with many failing to see how it could be of benefit. What we now have to ask is how can we promote social media in order for it to achieve a higher level of adoption. How can social media penetrate to this degree?

Ryan states that he uses social media to supplement his real life relationships but we should be going beyond this and using it to forge new relationships which we can then continue in an offline setting. Social media needs to be giving us the common ground so that we can avoid the embarrassing silences and dive headlong into fruitful, meaningful relationships and conversations with those people that we may only be meeting in the flesh for the first time.

So what's new?

Don't we already do with with existing media? What about the telephone and email and any other means we use to keep in touch and share information? Indeed we do but the speed, ease of use and range of the connections we can make with social media are adding an extra dimension to traditional means of communication.

Still, just talking about the future doesn't make it happen so saying that social media will be more prevalent in 2,5 or 10 years and change the way we live and communicate isn't enough - we need to start working out how we are going to reach that point.

Image by takuya miyamoto.

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Colin Walker Colin Walker colin@colinwalker.blog