Over the last couple of weeks I have been involved in conference calls, workshops, and webinars addressing the apparently irresistible rise of social media. However, I think social media is being over-hyped by advertisers, market researchers, and even by old media itself.
I am not saying social media is not big, I am not saying it is not influential, just that it is much less big and less influential than most people who write and speak about it seem to claim.
Here are a few observations about social media:
1. When a story in social media impacts the 'real' world it's usually because 'old' media picks up the story. Whether it's a politician caught in a scandal, a footballer tweeting, or a brand chopping down the rain forest, the point at which the social media story breaks through is usually when a newspaper or a TV channel picks the story up. In this context social media is simply one extra way (along with lobbying, press campaigns, stunts, marches, protests etc.) of reaching the powerful media.
2. Most young people do not really do social media. Yes, young people use Facebook, and they used Facebook before older people, but Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Google+ are all populated by the over 25s often the over 35s. Not only that, but when I have researched Facebook amongst 18-21 years olds they are reluctant to use it for 'official' purposes, such as university communications and prospectuses.
3. Social Media seems to be getting narrower. Facebook is dominant in the English speaking world and is now making rapid advances in other markets, micro blogging effectively means Twitter outside of China, and LinkedIn is sweeping all before it. This narrowing of social media is constraining the spontaneity and collaborative nature of social media, whilst perhaps delivering a more useful service to users.
4. Social Media, outside of Facebook, is becoming professional. If you spend much time watching the Twitter stream you will notice that a growing and large proportion of it is from companies (brands, advertisers, PR agencies, publicists etc). LinkedIn is now one of the most visited sites globally, and it only caters to the professional. (Alexa.com ranks LinkedIn 14th most visited globally, 10th highest in the USA, and 8th in India). Being more professional implies it is less ordinary, less everyday.
There is an oft repeated phrase in futuring that we tend to over-estimate the short-term impacts of a new technology and under-estimate the long-term.
In the short-term, I think too many people are over-estimating social media. Most people don't use it as a source of information, people are more influenced by newspapers and TV, and most products are evaluated outside social media.
Social media is a great way to reach some people, a wonderful way to listen to some people talk about their lives, and a fantastic tool to release creativity. But it is not currently a replacement technology.
In the longer term social media may well change things more deeply. We might all be involved in a social web, exchanging data for services and convenience. All businesses might be social (already most leading company websites offer interaction, recommendation, and sometimes co-creation). The shape of the future may well owe more to the Cluetrain Manifesto than Mark Zuckerberg.
But for the time being, social media is one tool among many.