The Evolution of Social Media and the Telephone

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The Evolution of Social Media and the Telephone

In researching networking science, I came across a web landing page, an old telephone ad, a journal article, and a blog post that, when taken as a whole, suggest the evolution and value of social media and provide a glimpse of communication and commerce today. The more things change. . .

Chicago social media expert Leah Jones’s Twitter landing page, which includes this sentence on social chit chat: “Those small bits of conversation are called phatic communication. Alone those bits are meaningless, but together they build a relationship. Phatic communication keeps the doors open for more communication.”

Indeed. Think of that in relation to this quote from a 5 February 2001 First Monday journal article, “Content is Not King,” by Andrew Michael Odlyzko, a mathematician who heads the University of Minnesota’s Digital Technology Center. In arguing how the internet would not be a content medium but a connectivity medium, Odlyzko looked back to how the telephone evolved and wrote:

“Sociability was frequently dismissed as idle gossip, and especially in the early days of the telephone, was actively discouraged. For example, a 1909 study of telephone service commissioned by the city of Chicago advocated measured rate service as a way to reduce “useless calls” [JacksonCW]. Yet the most successful communication technologies, the mail and the telephone, reached their full potential only when they embraced sociability and those “useless calls” as their goal [Fischer]. That seemingly idle chit-chat not only provided direct revenues, but it encouraged the diffusion of the corresponding technology, and made it more useful for commercial and other applications. Such social interaction frequently functions to grease the wheels of commerce.”

Sounds like social media today to me. If you think about it in terms of the telephone, we’re likely much farther along much faster in having online media “grease the wheels of commerce,” even with the difficulties news organizations have with making content pay on the web.

It took a while for the telephone, if this 23 March 1953 Life Magazine ad for the Bell Telephone System, “You Could Never Without a Telephone,” is any indication. Can you imagine having to point out all the uses of a phone?

Another quote from Odlyzko’s article brings home the connectivity value of social media: “The volume of communication has increased, the importance of a typical message has decreased, and the attention we pay to such a typical message has decreased. However, the aggregate value of all these exchanges has increased.”

That quote serves as a good introduction to the final link, The History and Evolution of Social Media. This excellent and comprehensive article summarizes online methods of “useless communication,” from the precursor usernets and bulletin board systems I used in the mid-1980s to today’s to lifestreaming and lifecasting.

Useful is often little more than the wide acceptance of something that initially seems useless.