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What Is Social Media - What Makes It Different?

Aug 18, 2007
In case you hadn't noticed, the internet has changed. In fact, you might say, there are two internets running side by side; the first is the old one and the second the new. Like a city with the new buildings going up next to the old. Think of London with St Paul's Cathedral just down the road from the modernist Lloyd's building.

When we talk about old and new on the internet we are clearly talking about relatively short timescales; since the public face of the internet is only just over fifteen years old. But to continue the analogy with architecture: the change in those fifteen years is like going from Roman churches to the cathedrals of the Gothic period which took centuries; or from St Paul's to the Lloyd's Building in less than a quarter of an average lifetime. I am sorry to stretch the analogy and press it upon you, but when change happens quickly we are inclined to adopt the changes almost as fast, and assuming there was some inevitability about it. There wasn't. The internet began on a publishing model and the new developments are entirely organic. And what is the nature of this change? Social Media.

Blogging, MySpace and YouTube have been buzz words for what seems like ages; but while the concept of blogging began slowly in the mid 1990's and developed through various technological forms over the years; MySpace was founded only four years ago in 2003 and was firmly built upon the concept that blogging had instigated. Youtube was started an even shorter time ago, in 2005.

While these, the giants of MySpace and YouTube, made their brief ascent many other similar such sites appeared, including such websites as: Friends Reunited, Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, Digg, Stumbleupon, and many others. What all these sites have in common is, firstly, that they act as platforms for User Generated Content and, secondly, they encourage and promote the building of networks of one kind or another. These are the fundamental tenets of "social media": they can be described as socially created and socially directed.

This is entirely different to the "publishing model" which the world wise web appeared to start out upon; where websites were like online versions of printed brochures or magazines and were created by one or many people for the purpose of dissemination based upon the interests or agenda of the publisher. Social Media is under no such controlling power and is a truly "social" creation.

The analogy I used earlier, of Roman to Gothic architecture, was an apt one. All Roman buildings were based upon templates, or blueprints, which set out exactly how a building of a particular kind would look. Where ever you travel in Europe, Roman architecture is instantly identifiable and in some ways, almost seems to have been created from a "cookie cutter".

The Gothic Cathedrals of the thirteenth century were as much a creation of the traveling craftsmen who came and added their unique decorations and embellishments, as they were of the architects and planners who designed and built their structures. The religious architecture of middle aged Europe may seem a far step to take from the twenty first century internet but the analogy is sound; and I wanted to underline the very real, and fundamental nature of the change.

The change has also been underlined by others: in less colorful, or historic, terms. In 2003, O'Reilly Media, who are known for publishing books and organizing conferences on IT and computing topics, coined the phrase Web 2.0 in reference to what was perceived as a second generation of web based hosted services and communities; which included all those User Generated Content sites described earlier.

The term Web 2.0 attempted to distinguish this new usage from the old and characterize it as not only different but as definitive of a more general change in web usage which, by its extent, might be seen a fundamental categorical shift in the system. No real technological changes were cited as causative of this change and it has been stressed that the core technologies involved were already in existence and in use but that their application and usage was as much of the perceived transition as the users.
About the Author
Joshua Watson is the author of How To Buy Used Cars , Make Money Online and Life Settlements Policy Appraisals .
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