Social Media: What next?

Jerome Perelman poses several interesting questions in his response to my blog, “What’s the Difference Between Information Technology and Computer Science?”  In summary, the question posed is “Should there be another area, user-centered Communication Technology, that is distinguishable from organization-centered Information Technology?”

In this response, I will suggest an alternative term, social media, because I wish to reserve the term “user-centered” for other purposes. I offer some ideas of what we can expect from social media and businesses that attempt to have a social media presence.

Mr. Perelman, in his post, offers a possible distinction between the two: Communication Technology as “user-centered” and Information Technology as “organization-centered.” Blogs such as this one, social sites such as Facebook, email and instant messaging can all be considered to be part of the “user-centered” communication technologies.

I agree that there are differences between these user-centered technologies and those that IT folks have been mainly concerned with over the past few decades.

Social Media
However, “user-centeredness” is a term that I would like to reserve. I would prefer to call these technologies “social media.” This term has grown in use lately to describe the emerging new media technologies that include text blogging, video blogging, micro blogging (such as Twitter) social networking sites, and so on.

For some time Information Technology professionals have been seen by others to be barriers to getting things done right. The reasons for this are too numerous to completely list here, but in brief these reasons include a growing communication gap between the IT pros and the users, limited budgets, numerous new technologies to understand, and an aversion to risk and change.

I propose that IT professionals actually want to be helpful to the user. User-centeredness is a practice of all good IT teams. However, the needs of each user cannot be completly met without an unlimited budget. Instead, IT and Information Systems professionals should collaborate with user representatives to understand the work of the user, and contrive ways to improve that work. These improvements can be in the selection of technologies available, the design of specific user interfaces and reports, and an overall information architecture plan.

Back to Social Media
These technologies, unlike databases for example, are new and have been developed more-or-less without any ideas about how they will be important in businesses and organizations. They are for the common use of everyone. This fact does not mean that businesses will find no use for them. Evidence is mounting that businesses, especially the marketing and promotions units within each business, are very interested in these media technologies. We have businesses experimenting with them, offering advertisements, coupons, special offers, and so on, on Twitter. It is no accident that FaceBook recently has modified its software to allow organizations to have a presence.

Because organizations are now keenly interested in this social media, it has emerged in responsive business schools, in the curriculum. Organizations wish to know “what can social media do for our business?”

Let’s not Forget History
The advent of social media may be much like the advent of the Internet itself.
The Internet was formed in a project (ARPANET) between the US Department of Defense and major US universities in the late 1960’s with the goal of accelerating the speed of scientific discoveries. It was meant to be a collaboration media to cut the time from discovery to the time of sharing that discovery with other researchers. By 1985, almost all university students had email accounts. Internet servers were established to allow folks from around the world to play chess and other games, share files with each other, and so on. The major use of the Internet in 1985 was not what it was “meant” to be by its founders. The internet is a commons; it is a public space much like a park in which you can do whatever you like, within the law.

Likewise, the World Wide Web, released to the public in 1991 by Tim Berners Lee and CERN, was developed to be an information-sharing technology. Certainly it still is used for that purpose, but it is also now a major marketplace.
The same can be said for the US highway system, which was developed in the mid-Twentieth century to facilitate troop transportation in case of invasion from the north, south, east or west. Certainly that is not what we use it for primarily. We use it to take vacations or relocate to our advantage. Businesses of course use the same highway systems to transport goods across the country, ultimately to make money.

Although developed for users, social media is a commons, available for any legal use. For better or worse, businesses will seek to discover how to leverage social media to make a buck.

What next?
Certainly social media is very new, and how it develops and unfolds is an interesting study. I believe businesses are scrambling to identify and employ experts, but what they really need are visionaries, because social media is so new and so quickly evolving, that no one can really know what the landscape will be like in two years.