The idea behind the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences is to gather thought leaders from a multitude of disciplines in a central space to stimulate and foster dialogues on a vast array of topics currently relevant in and to society. Social media, in much the same way, harnesses user-generated content to stimulate dialogue amongst both contributors and consumers. The organizers of the TED conferences host these ‘TEDtalks’ online for public consumption free of charge, paying tribute to the true spirit of open discourse. Interestingly, TED.com offers an online history of commentary on social media that provides incredible insight into where social media has come from and can indicate where it is going.
An interesting starting point in the history of social media is a 2006 TEDtalk hosted by Mena Trott, a woman considered to be a pioneer in the early days of the blogging revolution. Her TEDtalk, ‘on blogs’ sets the stage for understanding why some people contribute to social media, be it for personal gain or for the benefit of an organization. She then juxtaposes this against her own reason for entering the blogosphere, which she describes as due to a high degree of self-involvement; she wanted to be heard. Regardless of an individual’s motivations for contributing to social media one thing is clear: there is an unbelievable number of voices actively seeking acknowledgement. Whether they get that acknowledgement doesn’t even really seem to matter. Social media provides them with a forum to put their opinions out into the world and if someone chooses to pay attention to that voice the world is a different place, for better or for worse. James Suroweicki, in his 2005 TEDtalk address ‘When Social Media Became a News Medium’, astutely points out that most people are ultimately doing it for free, which is a paradigm shift in our perception of the value that individuals place on their creative work. The result of this is that the collective knowledge being offered up for consumption is undeniably enormous. Suroweicki later states that ‘under the right conditions groups can be more intelligent than the most intelligent individual in the group’. This, to me, is the essential value of social media; contributing voices have the potential to advance something, anything, at an incredibly fast pace. If harnessed properly its value is immense to both users and non-users.
At the outset of that same TEDtalk, Suroweicki suggests that there was a specific day, December 26, 2004, during which social media became a validated and accepted, useful, and indeed revolutionary medium to convey news stories around the globe; a tsunami careened across the south-western Pacific Rim, with Thailand bearing the brunt of its force. Using evidence gathered from the blogosphere Suroweicki describes how on that day unorganized and uncharacterized amateur ‘reporters’ were able to paint an incredibly detailed picture of what was happening on the ground. And they were able to do so better than the traditionally accepted forms of media because of the connectivity of social media. Another illustration of this is highlighted by Clay Shirky, who, in his talk ‘How Social Media Can Make History’ describes how the BBC learned of a devastating Chinese earthquake from social media; the quake became global news on social media before the U.S. Geological Survey even knew that it had occurred. What this means is that social media, in addition to serving a more generic (and often mundane) need by individuals for self-expression, is an incredibly valuable tool in communicating exceptionally important information in real time. While real-time reporting was possible in the past, it was intermittent and completely random. Social media will allow this in perpetuity because as time passes more and more people are becoming connected to the conversations taking place, which increases the number of sources for information with each additional voice.
One of several common themes in the TEDtalks is that of the role of and need for leadership in social media. None speak more eloquently than Seth Godin who, in his talk ‘The Tribes We Lead’ speaks on how social media has fundamentally changed the way ideas are generated and spread. The internet, at once chaotic and structured, creates what Godin calls silos of ideas. Without leadership these silos function independently, never gaining a voice. According to Godin, leadership, therefore, is ‘about finding a group that is disconnected but already has a yearning’ for something. In consolidating these disconnected voices social media has an opportunity to create a movement, and it has the power to do so much more quickly than traditional media simply by virtue of the speed with which information can be spread. This speed, coupled with the tendency for users of social media to consolidate in networks like facebook and Twitter, results in an incredible opportunity for individuals to organize thoughts and populations that already exist; the sentiments are there and all that remains is for the movement to take shape. What it relies upon, though, is a coherent vision from a faceless individual to amalgamate these things in a central location, be it on a blog, facebook, Twitter, or some other useful location. If you can find your faceless individual, if you can find that leader to connect the silos of ideas, you can create a movement, something that Godin rightly highlights.
The power of social media as a tool for communicating information and connecting individuals has evolved since it first developed its valued place in society. Its evolution is rapid and its implications are complex. Its appeal is that it’s unpredictable and its challenge is that we want to predict things; we want the satisfaction of being able to say ‘I saw this coming’. Social media, however, has a life of its own and we continue to be fascinated by it, trying to understand, if not control what will come next. Being at the forefront of its next wave, whatever it may be, creates tremendous advantages for those aware of developing trends.
1) TED.com- Ideas Worth Spreading. http://www.ted.com
2) TED.com biography. Mena Trott. August 2006. http://www.ted.com/speakers/mena_trott.html
3) Mena Trott. ‘on blogs’. Filmed Feb 2006. Posted August 2006. TED Conference, LLC.
4) TED.com biography. James Suroweicki. November 2005.
5) James Suroweicki. ‘When Social Media Became News’. Filmed February 2005. Posted November 2008. TED Conference, LLC.
6) TED.com biography. Clay Shirky. June 2009. http://www.ted.com/speakers/clay_shirky.html
7) Clay Shirky. ‘How Social Media can Make History’. Filmed June 2009. Posted June 2009. TED Conference, LLC.
8) Sichuan Earthquake. (2010, May 8). The New York Times. (online).
9) TED.com biography. Seth Godin. May 2009. http://www.ted.com/speakers/seth_godin.html
10) Seth Godin. ‘The Tribes We Lead’. Filmed February 2009. Posted May 2009.