Never Alone: How Social Media Changes The Way We Live And Consume


Tonnes of people talk about TV shows on Twitter.

I have a confession to make: I never knew how much TV mattered to Americans until I started following a whole bunch of them on Twitter for work-related purposes (read: tactful stalking).  I can literally tell what’s on American TV just by looking at the ReferralCandy Twitter feed.

I think this is a real and interesting phenomenon that’s very worth discussing. The QZ article that inspired this post wrote about Twitter specifically, but Twitter is just one face of this multi-faceted phenomenon.

This predated Twitter, and is essentially ubiquitous now.

  • People have always been eager to share. Besides Twitter, there are subreddits and Tumblr fandoms. Just drop by either site and search for the title of any TV show, however obscure, and you’ll see for yourself. My wife and I just started watching The West Wing (incidentally because of one too many recommendations from friends online), and turns out that people on Reddit’s r/thewestwing are rewatching it, too!
  • The future of entertainment is critically dependent on such communities. This gives us an opportunity to chat with other West Wing fans from all over the world, and it makes it likelier that we’ll end up watching the entire series. This in turn is why Twitter has a Head of TV, and why TV shows now have social media strategies baked into their production.
  • What is unprecedented is how widespread the phenomenon is now. Even before Web 2.0, there were forums and “fan shrines”, though these were a little more obscure.  It used to be “geeky” or “nerdy” to sit on online message boards and discuss things with strangers. Today, practically everybody does it.

As social media evolves, the social landscape of its users changes, too.

  • Norms change. My mother used to tell me about how, when she was a little girl, TV was a new and exciting thing. The entire community would gather around to watch the grainy black-and-white images. It was a talking point. To people from that era, it must seem very odd to see a group of people watching TV and tweeting fervently. But that’s change for you.
  • Different = Antisocial? It’s easy from the outside to come to the conclusion that people are getting more antisocial, less friendly. This is an age-old complaint that every generation has about the next. In 1886, people were complaining that newspapers allowed people to avoid socializing. (See: The Pace Of Modern Life)

People have been lamenting the degradation of social relations for millenia.

If we can learn anything from studying the history of such complaints, it’s that our grandchildren are almost certainly going to offend our sensibilities in some way, and life will go on anyway. :p

  • People haven’t fundamentally changed, we just behave differently in different contexts. We don’t spend long evenings entertaining family friends anymore, largely because we’re no longer obligated to entertain family friends anymore. And they probably have better things to do, too.
  • Proximity used to define relationships. There’s an idea in social psychology called The Proximity Principle, which points out that most of us build relationships with people we are close to geographically. It’s fun to think about. Until very recently, most human relations have been limited by geography. (The phenomenon of pen pals being a notable exception.)

What happens when you remove that limitation? If you have a choice between talking to a neighbour you don’t care very much for, and a person ‘online’ that you’re deeply interested in, how would you invest your time?

People are generally more interested in ideological proximity than geographical proximity. That’s quite possibly why proximity-based social networking has had so much trouble taking off. We do still sometimes prioritize the latter: A “Hackers in Toronto” group may be more useful to a Toronto dweller than “Javascript Programmers Worldwide” group.

But the beautiful thing about the Internet is that she won’t have to choose- she can just participate in both groups, on her own terms.

Implications for the future of ecommerce:

I think anybody trying to directly recreate the offline shopping experience is terribly misguided. You won’t have 4 friends sitting at their computers going on a digital shopping journey together. It requires too much coordination and misses the whole point– convenience is king. Trying to directly replicate the offline experience is futile (at least for the time being), because the offline version is a much superior substitute.

Instead, the future of the shopping experience will be different. It’s likely to follow the distributed, asynchronous and geography-independent path that social media is taking. Nobody wants to shop ‘alone’, of course. But now you can get the opinions of friendly enthusiasts and experts all over the world.

The term “friend” itself is changing. You’re a hashtag away from a community of people who think like you.

Their whole FB page is full of Likes, shares, comments, contributions from all over.

I think brands like Black Milk Clothing are getting it right. The above example speaks a thousand words. People can and do share fashion with complete strangers. They post pictures, compare notes, make suggestions and gush at each other’s latest purchases– despite not really knowing each other. All they need to know is that they have a common love for nylon leggings.

Social + Search is the future of discovery.

It’s not hard to imagine that the two might significantly converge in the future. It’s arguable that they’ve already started. Facebook is still a little opaque (probably because they have some plans for their social graph), but Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, Reddit etc. are all searchable. It’s just still a little tedious to dig through.

The first challenge for Social was to simply cope with this vast amount of information. If you check out Twitter’s engineering blog, they talk about the challenges of having to deal with massive spikes in traffic. The technical breakthroughs they’ve made on those fronts allow the rest of us to enjoy uninterrupted “It Just Works” service.

The next challenge for Social: How do you effectively navigate that tsunami of (previously non-existent!) information and serve it in a way that is highly relevant and helpful to users?

Whoever solves this problem well is going to be very, very rich. And perhaps more importantly, and more excitingly, they’re going to make the Internet so hyper-useful that the idea of Googling something may one day sound tedious and archaic.

We certainly live in exciting times.


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