Social Media’s Bright Future

The 3000 people who have registered for O’Reilly’s Web2.0 Expo 2007 are a sign that social media is more than just a “narcissystem,” as Chris Pirillo calls it. The precious few hours I spent there have convinced me that this is a trend that will reach the mainstream, even if the jury’s out on how and when.

Although very few people live as transparently and communally as Justin.tv with his 24/7 head cam, or Robert Scoble streaming live from his car on a Sunday drive to Merced, it’s clear to me that these early pioneers are showing us how we can effectively create virtual communities and develop relationships without actually meeting face to face. Fifty people watched Scoble drive to Merced, amusing themselves in a chat room the entire time.

And anything that can develop relationships and nurture them has a reason to succeed. “No man is an islande..” said John Donne, a metaphysical poet from the 17th century. (That’s for all you engineers).

I don’t even think social media has come close to reaching its true potential yet. People are blogging without knowing why they’re doing it, or posting their photos to Flickr or their videos on YouTube just because they CAN. But companies are also beginning to experiment with using these tools to accomplish business purposes. Social media will pass, like the telephone, from a curiosity to something we can’t remember living without.

For example, I saw a speed demo of Instructables last night. And while the demo consisted mainly of things kids made with K’nex and Legos and shared on the site –some pretty cool toy guns and land mines, if you appreciate war like most fourteen year old boys –when I went back to check out the site this morning I also found the instructions for making some interesting squid dishes. Quite frankly, I can see an application like this used to teach people to give themselves injections of blood thinners after surgery, or to practice yoga. Patient education, parenting education – there are many uses for an interactive set of instructions; everyone who has tried to put together a swing set or a doll house knows this.

In the life formerly known as my “First” life, I’m using Ning as a collaboration tool for a class I’m teaching in Networking and Public Relations for entrepreneurs at Grand Canyon University. Ning is a tool that helps you form social networks. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But it took five minutes to get going, and it is a great place to post class assignments, discussions, and reading. The students use it to communicate with me in between classes. It’s ad hoc, it’s free, and it’s community. It’s less formal and more visual than online learning platforms, but it’s where these platforms need to go.

I also see the application of social media to non-profits, the communities they serve, and their donors. One of my current visions is to put the stories of domestic violence survivors I am working with on a site where they can meet their mentors and helpers – people who want to give money to a good cause and want to know where it is actually going. Remember how powerful those TV ads were about adopting a child in Africa? How much more powerful are they when they become interactive? Social Venture Partners has pioneered the idea of venture philanthropy, and it’s only a matter of time before it goes virtual: see what the youth after school program you invested in actually does – with the help of Google Video.

Right now, we’ve got the tools and technology confused with the purpose of social media, which is to give audiences and consumers voices and faces. We will soon be taking the tools for granted and just putting them to use.

Remember when there was no VCR? No cell phone? No Internet? No email? I do. I remember being an early adopter of each, when they seemed high tech and everybody said we didn’t need them and didn’t need to learn to use them. I even felt that way about television, when it came into my life in the ‘50s.

We can make friends, customers, and partners on the Internet now. We can make our voices heard about who we don’t want for President. We are more powerful as a democracy if we want to be. Bloggers influenced the last election. YouTube will influence the next.

Look what ZipRealty, Zillow and Trulia have done to the real estate industry. Listings, house values, and comparables are online. These were once the secrets of licensees. In Arizona, the state agency that licenses appraisers wants to stop Zillow from issuing its “zestimates” on Arizona homes. That will never happen, because buyers and sellers crave transparency. Realtors® and appraisers will have to adapt to this changing environment.

After all, if medical information’s readily available on the Internet, why shouldn’t real estate values be.

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