It may be difficult to recall now, but the social media revolution, like most great ideas, sprang from humble beginnings. Long before it was the creator of vast fortunes and media empires, it began as a simple idea: Technology and the internet could be used to bring people together. Over time, this idea has manifested in myriad ways -- image-sharing platforms, micro-blogging, time-sensitive texts and images, etc. -- and now social networks bring together billions of people across the globe.
The origin stories of dorm room hacks and corporate side-project experiments have been shrugged off and today these companies are not just tech-industry juggernauts. They are reshaping how people fundamentally interact with one another.
As made famous in the movie "The Social Network," Facebook started as a college yearbook-style directory to compare, to put it delicately, the attractiveness of students. Similarly, YouTube's founders had a vague notion of creating a video-based version of the once popular "Hot or Not" website. When that failed to get funding (shocker) a platform reboot as a video-sharing network became the new strategy when one of the principals realized there was no way to find a copy of the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl. Seeing a theme here?
Twitter wasn't much grander in scheme, although this platform at least had roots in solving legitimate business problems. The founders were working at a podcasting company that was in need of a reinvention, so they came up with a messaging service to quickly communicate with a small group of people. The word Twitter was plucked serendipitously from the dictionary, meaning "a short burst of inconsequential information," and boom: A whole new form of mass communication (micro-blogging) was soon to be the go-to platform for immediate, real-time news and information.
Right place, right time, right technology
As it usually happens with these things, the timing for the social sites that ended up coming out on top was nearly perfect. Roughly 10 to 15 years into the world wide web era there was finally a generation of teens and 20-somethings that had grown up online. This generation had embraced new and novel patterns for consuming information and interacting with one another in ways even the most tech-savvy Boomers and Gen-Xers where reluctant to. In short, the younger demographics were ready and able to understand, accept, and adopt social media platforms in an unprecedented way. Additionally, for those who think you can't teach an old dog new tricks, at present the fastest growing demographic of social media adopters is the 55+ age group. And just like that the domination of the American consumer through social media is nearly complete.
This mainstream social media adoption didn't simply happen because the technology had improved. These new platforms tapped into a previously unmet need for self-expression, personal/professional networking, and a healthy dose of narcissism and voyeurism. This is all an extension of the "quantified self" phenomenon -- the use of technology to help measure exactly how lives change and influence their surroundings over time. In short, personal connections and interactions are central to our lives, and social media is the newest and seemingly most efficient way to enhance this aspect of ourselves.
Social media finally found an environment and a whole generation of users ready to accept it. Like any revolution, the diverse manifestations have influenced things in ways that may not have been apparent from the outset.
For better or for worse
Since social media is by nature a self-publishing and user-generated content platform, it has had a massive effect on the mainstream media and the way news and information is disseminated. Breaking stories that used to wait for verification or publication dates can now go public immediately -- in 140 characters or less. Not to mention that without social media many digital publications -- like Mashable, Buzzfeed, or Upworthy -- wouldn't exist. Both new age content producers and the old-media guard are now dependent on social media and social networks to spread content via sharing and other methods of viral pickup to drive readership.
Of course, adapting to the speed of Twitter and real-time newsgathering hasn't been the smoothest of processes. There have been some growing pains and more than a few very public snafus and suspended Twitter accounts. But regardless, these new platforms are now integrated into the media and public mindset. Consider how these new behaviors even affect mainstream politics due to the fact that if we experience journalism and news differently, we will experience politics and political discourse differently. For better or worse, political debates are now shaped by the sound bites that resonate on Twitter or other social media driven outlets. Just look at the lasting impression of Mitt Romney after the 2012 election, which will always be boiled down to the "binders full of women" or the "47 percent" remarks. In short, social media giveth, and social media taketh away. It took away the career of former Congressman Anthony Weiner. He learned the classic lesson of the social era -- hitting send often leaves a permanent digital imprint.
Besides improving discourse, social media can improve sales
Online retail is another industry that has successfully embraced social as a way to market on a more personal level -- and to increase sales. Massive retailers -- such as Lands' End and Sephora -- have created storefronts on Pinterest and are seeing significant web traffic and sales coming through these channels. Arby's uses Twitter to provide real-time discounts to followers for immediate use in an attempt to drive traffic to its restaurants. Similarly, personalities like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber (brands unto themselves) wouldn't have seen such fame or driven record sales without this direct line to fans.
As brands have started to move marketing dollars -- from traditional one-way advertising to interactive, conversation-based content marketing distributed over social channels -- social media has grown in importance. Marketers were fast to seize on this direct and measurable link to consumers and the ability to bypass the major media gatekeepers and paymasters.
A positive development is that brands now view customers as a community rather than targets -- a subtle but important change in the marketing mindset. Many forward thinking companies are creating social hubs on their sites to have a destination for curated social content that supports their content strategy through brand storytelling, original content, and public relations.
While this can be a double-edged sword as companies no longer own and control their brands completely, the good clearly outweighs the bad. Companies have no choice but to alter their strategies to get the most out of their social media engagement.
Social media meets customer service, meets responsive advertising
Since everyone is always connected, we all have a digital (potentially viral) megaphone in our hands at all times. This means that customer service blunders are no longer quiet affairs. Rather, they are splashed across Facebook or Twitter requiring companies to establish teams to monitor and respond in real-time. Massive companies such as Jet Blue, PayPal, and Nike have used social media to great effect not only to correct support issues, but to publicly display how much they care about their customers.
On topic with real-time responses, the newest trend of in-the-moment social media marketing has been dubbed "hijacking." Oreo first made this idea famous with its timely tweet about the Super Bowl blackout a couple years ago. Driven by the linking of Twitter -- and other social media outlets to live TV -- advertisers will need to think through the second-screen effect as a core tactic in the future. Consumers now watch TV -- sports, award shows, even Hulu or other online video providers -- with device in hand. The lesson here is that creativity and responsiveness will win the social media battle by captivating the hearts and minds of engaged consumers.
Social media acceptance
Consumers don't pay for social platforms because they are the product that's being sold. The ongoing challenge that companies, brands, and marketers are faced with is how to develop an intimate relationship with consumer's wallets. As for consumers, making peace with being the product is happening -- somewhat.
Of course the industry will continue to change as technology does and it is very hard to predict exactly who will be the winner or loser in 5 or 10 years. Given the pace of development in the tech industry, it is hard to imagine Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn still being king of the hill, though they could be building or inspiring new businesses that will stand the test of time. However, one thing is for certain: The primal needs that spurred the incredible growth of these networks are not going to change, nor is the desire for marketers to build close relationships with customers. The need to share, connect, inspire, and entertain is what makes us human and is the real life force behind these newfound empires.