Regardless of the polemic between Andrew Sullivan and Malcolm Gladwell, it is clear in early 2011 that the revolution has been Tweeted… in China, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Lybia, etc. Why is this happening, and what does it mean for anyone trying to understand social media? Well, this is partly about access to reliable and timely coverage. Starting with Tunisia and leading into the Egyptian revolution Al Jazeera English saw a 2,500% increase in Web traffic, including a 10-fold increase in Twitter followers. A news organization, for example, can leverage a light weight and high-velocity medium like Twitter in a crisis, where it can provide timely and reliable coverage to media consumers, while also amplifying and redistributing the information coming out of the local network in real time. By maximizing the potential of each individual within the network by the combination of a common crisis and enabling technology, the interests of participants and media were aligned.
To understand the evolution of social media and its import, it is important to understand how social networks work. Social media is a combination, or “mash up”, of people, social design and technology: Technology + humans + social design = social media.
The social media platforms that have been successful have one thing in common: they allow humans to conveniently self-organize around information and ideas that they care about. They provide value by nurturing their values and interests.
Humans are “rational, self-maximizing actors”
This quote from Clay Shirky (“How cognitive surplus will change the world”, TED Talks) might be the most important maxim for understanding how humans use social media. If you understand this, and how social media creates a more efficient, ubiquitous and high velocity cyber human, nothing that happens in social media should surprise you. Think of a good social media platform, like any good enabling technology, like a bicycle. It helps a human become more efficient then it would be normally. On two legs we are not terribly efficient. But on a bicycle, we become quite efficient. We become efficient at going where we want to go faster… and we are only interested in our own destinations. This may be the most important consideration when trying to understand social media – “rational, self-maximizing actors.”
There are economies at work in social networks. Brands and organizations need to organize their social media strategies around these economies… that is: around the self-maximizing potential of humans as individual actors.