Millions of years ago dinosaurs ruled the earth. Their giant remains can be found on most all of the continents. That was a different time in history; but, like everything that has come and gone, it is history. Suddenly and unexpectedly a great global disaster brought the reign of the dinosaur to an end. Communication as our parents knew it or perhaps as we knew it when we were children is on the verge of a similar, however not quite as drastic or immediate, moment in time. The days of writing letters with pen and paper are coming to an end. Newspapers and to a certain degree magazines are facing a similar fate. They are being replaced by electronic media and email. Communication is no different from any other aspect of civilization. It lives and evolves; ever changing with the demands of society. Velum and papyrus replaced stone tablets. Hand written books met their fate with the invention of the printing press and now, letters and other hard copy media are fading out in favor of email and websites. This has had a drastic effect on the way that people communicate and learn. Written communication has gone the way of the dinosaur.
Our communication evolution has spawned new tools such as social media. The term social media refers to a group of tools used and generated primarily by the end user. They offer a way for people to communicate and share information instantly and easily. By definition, one of the primary requirements for a tool to be considered social media is its ease of use. This new form of media is changing culture and, with it creativity and collaboration. There are three things that must occur in order for culture changing creativity to occur. There must be development of a domain which contains a set of understood rules, people bringing novelty to that domain and a group of experts who recognize the merit and validity of the innovation. Social media has all three of these characteristics.
Social media, however, is a relatively new concept. The internet is a living thing and it is in a constant state of change. Today, in 2009, what we think of as the internet is different than what one would have known ten years ago. This first generation of the web is now referred to as Web 1.0. It was made up of a series of static, content based web sites. There was no two way traffic and there was no sharing of information among users. It served merely as a source for businesses and developers to display content. It would be easy to think of it today as a number of billboards, advertisements and pamphlets connected electronically and displayed remotely. It was a true wonder in its day but as we have become desensitized to the technology on which it is based we have come to expect more from our online experiences.
What we know as the internet now is commonly referred to as Web 2.0. Unlike its predecessor, Web 2.0 is populated by and large with user created content and the free sharing of information amongst its users. The internet now is a place where the smallest of voice can speak as loudly as one that belongs to the largest body. This equalization of voice has caused a drastic change in the way that we communicate with one another as well as how businesses communicate with their consumers. Through the current version of the internet that many people have found their voice. The younger people of the world are using the internet to register to vote, find philanthropic opportunities, communicate with their friends, and express their views on current topics.
Social Media Society
Younger people are bringing the new forms of communication to the forefront globally. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook along with blogging are the new ways to communicate. There is a new generation of consumers of media known as Generation Y. This group consists of people born between 1985 and 2003. They have had access to communication with people worldwide via the internet throughout most of their lives and for this reason they are referred to as digital natives. With numbers rivaling the baby boomers; they will certainly shape the new world with new thoughts and innovations. There are approximately 73.5 million Generation Yers as compared to the 76.7 million baby boomers. To help put this into perspective there are approximately 49.1 million members of Generation X (Kipka, 2009).
Businesses and Employees
This is not to say that members of Generation X and the baby boomers are unwilling to embrace the new way of communicating. They are just a bit behind the younger generation; which is understandable. The majority of Fortune 500 companies are led by members of the baby boomer generation and operations are generally handled by younger people who are members of Generation X. The size of a company determines its ranking in the Fortune 500. Of the corporations listed with this group only 12.8% have a presence in what is known as the blogosphere, which is another name for the grouping of social media venues. Conversely, the Inc. 500 lists companies based on their growth. An astonishing difference can be observed here. Of these companies 77% are using social media (Holtz, 2008). Among companies who employ the use of social media the use of these tools is second only to email marketing when it comes to web based communications and internet presence. As a testament to the power of social media, about 90% of all organizations, both big and small, have or plan to have a web presence of some sort.
This boost in web friendly companies and work environments is a welcomed change for employees. Fading away are the days of ‘nose to the grind’ work ethic and they are being replaced with a new concern for employee satisfaction and a reduction in attrition, stress and workload. There is a difference between the ways that different generations view this change. A 2008 study revealed that 39% of 18 to 24 year old employees would consider leaving their employer if they weren’t allowed access to social networking sites like Facebook while at work. An additional 21% stated that they would be annoyed by the restriction but it likely would not lead to a search for alternate employment. There is a sharp difference in these numbers when examining the older generation, employees aged 25 to 65. In this group only 16% would consider leaving and an additional 13% would be bothered by their not having access to social media content.
According to Soren Gornhamer, author of Wisdom 2.03 and columnist for technology website Mashable, companies who don’t allow their employees to have a voice in the online community are doing a disservice to their brand. When a business allows its employees to represent the company online or in the real world they are adding value to the company. It is important for businesses to realize that by stifling their employees’ use of the internet and social media they are causing resentment and eventually mutiny among their workers. It doesn’t matter if a company does or doesn’t want to have a web presence in social networking and media. The fact of the matter is that it already does. The employees are using Facebook and Twitter to talk about their jobs and how they feel about the company.
Scope of Social Media
It’s no secret that people are using the internet to communicate. That is perfectly clear to any and everyone who is breathing. Social media outlets are growing exponentially. In a recent Nielson study it was found that Twitter is the fastest growing among them with a monthly growth of 1382% and the total number of Tweets, the term given to the microblogging messages sent via Twitter, approaching 2.5 billion. The same study revealed that social networking site Facebook has more than 200 million active users. That number does not include members who have inactive or stagnant accounts. When one takes a step back it is difficult to imagine the rate of growth demonstrated by social media. A separate study conducted by Telindus, an information and technology company based in Belgium, found by surveying 1000 Canadians found that nearly every single 18 to 34 year old in that country is a registered Facebook user. Another study conducted by the Traveler’s group found that 33% of all adults are actively using Facebook.
When one considers these numbers it is clear and undeniable that communication, not only for businesses but also for individuals is changing. We no longer rely solely on print media or even television news for our information. Much the way it was before print and television media, word of mouth is the new king of information. The difference is that this time, in its rebirth, word of mouth is more accurately word of hand. People are beginning to turn to their Twitter followers and Facebook friends for the facts more so than other means of acquiring the information. According to an online usage tracker, MarketingVox, and the Nielson company more than 25% of Google searches for information relating to the top 20 worldwide brands is made up of user generated content including blogs, forums, and Tweets. There is still content created by the producers of goods and services but consumers look to blogs and forums to find out about product reliability and common problems.
A few years ago Dell, a computer manufacturing company, was having technical and customer service related problems. Initially they tried to address these issues by means of telephone customer service lines but long waits and difficult procedures to correct issues caused concern and irritation among consumers. They soon realized that people were talking about their products on forums and blogs. This is when they realized that the best way to reach the customers and deal with their customer service issues was to join in the conversation that was already taking place. They were able, through social media outlets, to speak directly with their consumers. It was only after doing this that they were able to truly comprehend the problems that were troubling their customers and, as a result, impacting their brand image.
Social media is impacting the world of advertising as well. It is no longer necessary for a company to spend thousands or even millions of dollars on advertising in order to reach a large audience. This is a definite win for organizations in the nonprofit sector of business. One example of a nonprofit agency that has seized the opportunity to use social media to further their cause is the Americans with disabilities. Their website, disability.gov, formerly known as disabilityinfo.gov, has been redesigned to now include social media tools such as a blog and twitter feed. This has helped to encourage feedback and interaction among visitors. They are only one among myriad organizations who are taking advantage the reach and affordability of social media marketing. According to a recent article in The New York Times “…for many mom-and-pop shops with no ad budget, Twitter has become their sole means of marketing”.
Not to be forgotten, social media and social media marketing are having an impact on schools and universities. Many universities are actively informing their students and interested parties of events via Twitter, blogs and Facebook fan pages. The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research conducted a study of colleges and found that in 2007 29% of admissions offices had a social network presence and 33% maintained blogs. In 2008 there was a drastic increase in these numbers with 61% utilizing social networking and 41% using blogs to inform students and interested parties. The University of California at Berkeley offers a course on virtual communities and social media and in 2008 published an article which stated “The feeling of a citizen who only passively consumes what’s sold to them by broadcast media is very different from someone who has posted a blog item, or who has posted a YouTube video or who has commented on a newspaper article online…In the 21st century civic education is participatory media-literacy education”. Being able to comment on social issues and reply to newspaper articles gives the reader a sense of ownership and contribution to the betterment of the news organization and to society as a whole.
Drawing from this we can determine that communication is definitely changing and the ways in which we communicate will likely continue to change. Word of mouth has always been key in creating a brand and then in creating value in that brand but business went through an era where advertising was more important than product quality. We also know that the advent of social media and the free sharing of information with millions of people across a broad platform has made strides toward making word of mouth advertising the keystone of product brand and value once again. It is often said that history repeats itself. This is true in entertainment, fashion and, as we have learned, communication. Where will communication go next? Will the next step move forward toward some new form of conversation or will it continue even farther into history and a complete abandonment of written word? Will we come to a point in time where there is no hard copy documentation? Perhaps.