The Untold history of Social Media

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Presentation I gave on "The History of Social Media" at The Role of Social Media for Democracy - National Seminar organized by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, MICCI, COVA & Dot Now Social.

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  • Good Morning ladies and Gentleman. First of all, I would like to thank you for having me here. For reference, my twitter handle: @venkinesis and I blog at www.venkinesis.inWhat I am going to do in the next twenty minutes is to give a fairly broad perspective of the history of Social Media in line with the theme of the conference – Role of Social Media in Democracy and then look at some of the critical shifts that have taken place in the world of communication and then drill down specifically to democratization and then maybe answer some questions if you have.
  • Imagine a vast, gigantic system powered by complex, multi-causal, interconnected engines and forces. This system has been running well for the last 150 years. However, over the last few decades the most discomforting truth about this system has been revealed. The main Operating System of this gigantic system is about to collapse. We just cannot believe it. If not sooner than later, the entire system will hang up and we have to press Ctrl + Alt + Del again. Once you press reset, everything will start again. You know how it feels, when our PCs hang up. The system has been showing symptoms of breakdown in isolated parts over the last few decades. During 2008, the system had a huge breakdown in the form of Financial Crisis which affected so many of us. The consequences of pressing Ctrl + Alt +Del are beyond our imagination to say the least. We have no idea!We still have some time left to find a way to mitigate the impact of this disaster. This is a greatest moment in our history as we have the potential to rebuild everything we have ever known. That includes rebuilding democracy as well without any burden of the past. While some of you may argue with me on the scale of change, the need for change just cannot be dismissed. I don’t think with this learned audience, I need to explain which system I am talking about. I am talking about our Industrial Civilization. Our democracy system has also been under tatters, caught in a self-destructing loop by the blinding force of our free market system. Our current democratic system cries for representation, not just from the countries which are trapped under totalitarian governments but also from tribes living in remote forests, from the sacred groves, from the ecosystems which have ensured that our environments are stable enough to lead peaceful lives. By the way, do you recollect this gigantic machine? This shot is from the cult classic sci-fi movie, Metropolis. It is at this point of representation where Media plays a huge role in facilitating the change.
  • I have no academic background in historical study or research. I began to explore this purely out of interest. When we talk about history, the obvious question is: Why bother study history?At the rate of change happening in our world, does it make sense. Social Media world changes in a matter of seconds. I was reading a 15 year old kid’s blog the other day. She mentioned Twitter and Facebook are for the older generation. As scholars have been telling us, history enables us to interpret the past and understand the patterns. Few months back, I read this fascinating book called “Guns, Germs and Steel” which gave me a wonderful metaphor to look at History. When we begin to look at history as an onion, of course your eyes begin to irritate and you start to shed tears..! As you peal the layers of history, you come across tear-jerker life stories of people who zealously devoted their lives in the pursuit of an idea/invention. Heart rending stories of people who never got the credit they deserved just because the time wasn’t right. As you begin to peal layers, you come across more layers until you realize you have nothing left in hands. This act of pealing the layers is useful for two reasons. Firstly, It helps in debunking the popular myth around history that it is all about those heroic figures who determined to find an answer to a problem. We fail to notice that there were several people who were already pioneers. For instance, we know Tim Berners Lee. But how many of us know Ted Nelson whom he attributed his inspiration to create the Web. Or do we come to know about Paul Otlet who invented Universal Decimal Classification. Our minds are often swayed by, “Necessity is the mother of invention” paradigm. However, more often, Invention is the mother of necessity. The case I have in point is Twitter. Once Twitter came into being, it’s the users of Twitter who determined different uses of Twitter, be it something as useful as to update during moments of crisis as we saw in Haiti Earthquake or something as trivial as telling what you ate for breakfast in the morning. The inventors of Twitter couldn’t have come up with all the ways Twitter is now being used for. Secondly, technology growth is autocatalytic. In simple terms, it means Technology begets more technology. It speeds up evolution. The first change would be in large steps...and then evolution becomes exponentially faster…You can see this so clearly in the Social Media space, with the time it took for people to embrace these Social Media tools and widespread proliferation of the Twitter tools that came out of Twitter.
  • So what is the starting point in history where we can start to see the first signs of humans trying to communicate with fellow human beings? I want to take you to a time period of the Ice Age approximately 25000 to 35000 years ago. What do you see here? We were hunter-gatherers, hunting wild animals and foraging for roots and berries. This is the first Wall ever where humans have posted messages. The great-great- grand mother of Facebook Wall, perhaps.
  • As Jared Diamond states in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Sedentary living was absolutely important for the history of technology. We moved away from being a hunter-gatherer, gathering food to being a food producer. Later we would come back to this point to see how history is repeating itself and appreciate how crucial this shift has been.
  • As Alex Wright states in his research, Earth’s early days saw huge environmental changes and people started living closer and began to produce food. So when new groups came in close contact with each other, these symbols were mode of communication through which they showcased their social identity/status. Like we immediately change our Facebook status to married, the early prehistoric woman wore this huge pendant which told that she is married. As a group of people began to produce food, another group of people had time to invent technology. You can see some of the impact still today. If we look at our lives, especially those working in technology, we are able to work as somebody else cooks for us. We don’t have the time to cook.
  • Let us now fast forward several thousand years. We are now in 1450 AD. Gutenburg has invented the printing press. And what do you see beside it is the first document to go viral…. Luther’s 99 Theses…By the way, this was posted in the wall of Wittenburg Church. It spread to Germany and then entire Europe. This led to Protestant reformation. We all know what this invention unleashed in the history of mankind. It led to the birth of the scientific method.
  • Fast forward around 100 years industrial age began..and the era of broadcast.Broadcast also started with the idea that if you extend the market beyond the local, you cant really have this one-to-one correspondence. So you had one-to-many kind of medium to deal with the bigger market. Currency enabled you to deal on a standardized level at a larger market scale. What’s critical in this is to note that it was possible only with an upfront access to capital/information so that you could get means of production or broadcast. These were the pre-requisites of Power.What is broadcast? One talking to many. However, if u observe, It is essentially no one talking to no one. The communication seems to be real. It is unidirectional ,as it substitutes the real. To understand broadcast, observe what’s happening now in this conference. Im talking to you without getting feedback of how you are feeling about my speech. Ofcourse while I can make out something from your facial expressions. I only get non-verbal signalsas a feedback.
  • So what is the great shift that has occurred in communication. You are live-tweeting about this conference. I can see how you felt while I have been ranting all this long. Would like to show you a video so that you can clearly see how communication is actually going on. What do you see in communication is: It is Immediate It is RealIt is personal It is VolitionalInformation is infinitely available.
  • In the 1970s there was a popular book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. Neil Postman wrote a wonderful critic of the television culture where every aspect of our culture is reduced to sensationalism. Be in Politics, Religion, News Channel .We see this in our everyday channels. This was an unintended consequence of a dramatic change which occurred in our modes of public conversation. If we begin to look at the roots of this problem critically, it stems from the TV stations deciding the context for us for their profit motives.
  • What is happening now is You first create a context and then you put in stuffs that builds up the content. So the content is actually subservient to context. So almost any content can be made to look useful if the context is clear. So this is again first time in history that content is subservient to context
  • Few years ago, I made an open source movie called Web Brahman, inspired by other Open source movies like Sita Sings the Blues . Made out of the documentaries which were available in Internet. I showcased it in an auditorium to a niche audience. This wouldn’t have been possible without this great shift in communication. You can watch the movie online for free in Youtube. I have also given the link for your reference.
  • If you look at the marketing argot, we love calling every customer group as a segment. However, the truth is that there is no such thing as a segment. You make up a segment because it is inconvenient to deal directly with the customer. But now what we see is segments are dead. We are individuals. Companies and governments have to live with it.
  • Network is becoming the fundamental unit. When the fundamental unit is a complex entity, it is difficult to mess around. When the network becomes the unit, it becomes difficult to apply false identities like segments to it. Because information is infinitely available, you can verify whether this information is true or not. Have you noticed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to lie in Facebook. True democratization happens when the node is the fundamental unit
  •  We are seeing the classic cyclic nature of history. The good old cliché: History repeats itself. We are now beginning to see the possibilities of leading a nomadic life, like that of our ancestors who were food gatherers because technology enables us to treat work as a verb rather than as a noun. The other side of this is to imagine that computers would make community lives unnecessary as we can socialize in the dark corner of our bedrooms. Now we can work wherever we want to.
  • What really inspires me about Technology is that it has provided means for our deeper true altruistic nature to manifest in the most wanting situations. What you see here is the Photo restoration project in Tohoku, Japan. March last year, during Tsunami in japan .One of the things that got damaged was peoples’ memories... Photographs..So they formed a site where people scanned photographs and uploaded them and a group of online volunteers came from around 20 countries to use their photoshop skills to ensure the photos are restoed and memories remain intact.
  • We are not saying here that technology will solve all our problems. Technology is simply a consequence of change. It is not the cause of change. Technology by itself doesn’t know to do good for the society until we decide to something out of it .Even in the light of the recent uprising movements in Arab, there have been lots of debates about whether Social Media is the cause of revolutions. Our journeys with technology is ongoing journey with tradeoffs which we would take in to make our lives continuously better. While information asymmetry is almost coming to an end, wisdom asymmetry still prevails. I would like to end my speech with this quote. Technology is an improved means to an unimproved endThank you.
  • The Untold history of Social Media

    1. 1. The Untold History of Social Media @venkinesis www.venkinesis.in
    2. 2. …….Invention is the mother of necessity
    3. 3. Luther’s 99 ThesesWittenberg, 1517
    4. 4. http://webbrahman.wordpress.com
    5. 5. Technology is an improved meansto an unimproved end - Henry David Thoreau
    6. 6. References• Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond• Social and Technological Change in Western History, Alex Wright,FPRI (http://www.fpri.org/footnotes/1327.200811. wright.socialtechnologicalchange.html)

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