The technology of tools like Twitter and Facebook is not what’s impressive or important about what social media offers to business. In fact, I would argue that what makes these tools special — and successful, especially in the case of Twitter — is how unimpressive they are. And by that I mean how simple they are.
A lot of people have the mistaken impression that what these tools offer in terms of core functionality is new. It’s not. Not even on the Web. The ability to connect, interact, broadcast, respond — communicate — has always been a fundamental component (indeed, a founding principle) of Internet technology.
Two factors have made the difference:
1. The tools are no longer esoteric. Much of what social networking offers is remarkably familiar to anyone who has participated in any of the “forum” structures that have been around since the neolithic days of CompuServe, and which were eventually ported onto the Web to serve the geekdom associated with special interests. “Affectional communities” flourished within these networks, but went largely unnoticed by business because the tools were isolated, various, and highly distributed. This wasn’t the town square, it was the back rooms.
2. Adoption has reached critical mass. The key factor to widespread use was, as always, the confluence of the right tools at the right time. Just as the technology reached a point where it could offer both simplicity and sophistication, the overall cultural adoption of the Internet as an inevitable and fundamental part of personal and professional life had arrived. Geekdom for all.
Much of business remains reluctant to embrace social media in part because new tools represent that dark room before you turn the light on: You have no idea how big it is or what obstacles you may confront. But in fact the real work is not in learning the tools but in determining how best to use them. And that requires a degree of internal brand analysis and fresh thinking that is always challenging to business because it represents change, and change is hard.
The important distinction is to focus not on what the tools do (they connect and communicate) but what to do with the tools. What interactive technology (now ubiquitously referred to as social media) enables is for people to have a true presence in the virtual marketplace. Wrap your head around the idea that what is valued now is not the presence of a brand idea but the presence of a branded person.
Social media relies on a personal presence. Be the tool.