The social revolution is upon us, and we are all a part of it. Within our generation the world has changed. Individuals now form vast community networks which span the globe, and social media is prolific.

In the past decade the balance of power has shifted to the consumer through the uptake in social media. It affects how we search for content, how we consume content, and how we increasingly hold corporations accountable.

Beyond Our Origins

Facebook was the first player to take social media mainstream after it launched in 2004, but it wasn't the first of it's kind. Sites such as SixDegrees were around in the late 90s and many more niche sites briefly gained notoriety around the same time such as FaceParty in the UK; a site at one time more popular than eBay or Amazon with 7 million users[1].

Before the newer generation of social networking sites, users were constrained to smaller isolated communities built around forums, newsgroups and IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Before these it all started with BBS (bulletin board system); a rudimentary system for exchanging data over dial-up connections in the 70s.

Even before wide availability of computers in the household in the 50s, underground groups came together through the phenomenon of phreaking. Originally involving exploits in the analog phone system, it allowed individuals to route free calls with home made electronic devices such as blue boxes. As well as being used for pranking, notably by the Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, phreaking became a social outlet not constrained by physical location[2]. In doing so small communities formed in the darkness via a network of party lines and long distance calls.

Going back even further amateur radio also allowed people to span great distances more legitimately, and formed niche communities from as early as the 20th century. What distinguishes this use of technology from the common telephone is that people were drawn together through common interests, rather than being centered around those already known to them.

It seems the human desire to reach out and form communities is in our DNA. It is the secret to our evolutionary success, yet it’s technology that empowers us beyond our humble origins. It not only gives us a voice, but ensures we are heard.

The Evolution Of Social

What’s interesting to observe looking back is how social media has evolved both in terms of acceptance within our society and in terms of the technology that takes it forward.

First the audience has changed. From the early days in the 70s, 80s, and 90s there was generally a stereotypical stigma attached to those who participated in the practice of online socialising. This stigma existed across all age groups with even young teenagers snubbing the practice. Slowly over generations as technology became increasingly more accessible and more integrated into everyday life the stigma dissipated. Online dating and gaming has helped take acceptance into new age groups and today social media is the norm embracing all generations. Within just the last year my entire family is now on Facebook, and I’m sure most of yours are too.

What this means is there are now almost no social boundaries left within the industry, at least within the western world. This makes it a huge market to tap into and puts the onus on the big players to gain our trust and keep us onside. In return they glean revenue from billions of page views via carefully positioned advertising.

The other interesting observation is that it’s not the older more established sites that are the most successful today. Instead it’s the youngest sites which have used smarter technologies and learnt from the failings of others that thrive, toppling the once dominating leaders in their wake. At the time of writing GooglePlus has just launched and already seeing unprecedented widespread adoption that could fast become a real threat to Facebook. It has already gained 20 million users in the first 3 weeks to become the fastest growing network of it’s kind[3].

Social Power

It’s truly a fierce and highly competitive market which has changed the way social media engages with us. As a result it empowers consumers to heavily influence functional design based on our evolving expectations over privacy and security concerns. Through this process we have already achieved much greater transparency over how our data is shared. On platforms such as Facebook for instance, we no longer get rogue applications spamming our feeds with notifications at every conceivable opportunity. Instead third party apps are now relegated to the edges where they can only solicit our data.

Besides evolving with us, social media also empowers us beyond the platform. By giving us a voice and allowing us to form these vast social networks, it is changing the internet as we know it. Today the digital consumer is king. Any bad experiences can be instantly shared with thousands, retweeted, liked, and +1 to the masses. Suddenly our opinions matter. In the same way that advertising spreads it’s idealistic branding that companies spend millions to promote, social chatter is beginning to spread a more realistic viewpoint based on real experiences. Increasingly every customer interaction is key; both online and in the physical world.

Likewise whereas search engines were once the most important avenue for driving traffic and promoting brands, online social communities are now establishing their own independent content streams through content sharing. This is becoming a process of natural selection where popular content is not necessarily based on search placement.

Social media is the future of digital. It evolves with us, and it empowers us. We are truly children of the social revolution, and together through these online hubs we shape the future.