Some people are still scratching their heads. Social media changed everything, but they are not quite sure how. Since I began teaching social media as part of communication, I've relied on one simple equation: you have to think of social media as its own environment.
People who are engaged in social media already know it's true. However, for those who don't understand this, it still seems like a foreign idea. They tend to frame up the online experience as a "virtual world" as opposed to "real life." Even my colleagues in social media are prone to stumble. They keep lists of people they met in "real life" as opposed to those they only know online.
It's a mistake. And the reason is simple enough. The environment has changed. And last Friday, I was able to illustrate the point with an example that turned the light on for many participants. It also demonstrates why traditional media is still hemorrhaging subscribers, mostly because many of them are among those who see the Internet as another broadcast channel.
Traditional Media Broadcast Messages Into An Environment.
Sometimes you have to review the past to better explain the present. So, among the slides in my deck, I presented an oversimplified communication model representing the past.
A person (broadcaster) used an expensive technology to transmit messages to a less expensive technology so other people could consume the communication in the environment of their choosing. They might read the paper at the breakfast table, listen to the radio in their car, or watch television on the couch.
Distribution was also limited. Generally speaking, the only way to receive that communication was to not only own but to be actively using a specific reception device. As long as the television was on, they could receive your message. As long as they opened the paper, they received the message. As long as they turned on the radio, they received the message.
But even more important to consider, this message was part of their greater environment. And, once they receive the communication, they might share or discuss that information with people within direct proximity to their environment — the people in their households, friends at the local pub, or maybe around the water cooler.
Social Media Broadcasts Messages Into An Environment.
Social media, on the other hand, dramatically changed the model. While two people still needed devices to broadcast and receive messages, they no longer were disproportionate in their capabilities. Every device that connects to the online environment is equally capable of broadcasting and receiving. That changed the model, and it changed it in more ways than one.
A person (broadcaster) can now use one inexpensive technology to transmit all forms of media to other people who have the same technology, while simultaneously allowing one-on-one communication with any number of people that message reaches.
The potential for one-on-one communication changed the dynamic of the communication because it allowed for engagement, enabling other people to respond to the message in whatever form they wished. The physical environment no longer mattered because the engagement effectively made the "virtual world" the only environment that mattered.
At the same time, a percentage of people who were originally communication consumers became communicator broadcasters, which empowered them to rebroadcast messages, repurpose messages, and critique messages as they felt fit. Some might rebroadcast within the same environment while others (traditional media) would also rebroadcast the original or adapted messages across traditional mediums.
Convergence Will Solidify The Change.
Five years ago, I used to receive plenty of push back on convergence — the day when broadcast would be indistinguishable from the Internet. I rarely receive much push back anymore. The average American spends 32.7 hours per week online, up from 9 hours per week in 2006.
It's happening all around us. I can pick up an iPad and watch programming without even having to plug in to a hardwired location, read my email, create original content, or put it on a larger screen. At the same time, digital is being rapidly integrated into everything from television sets to game consoles. And, as technology continues to converge, you can readily expect the various communication disciplines to converse right along with them.
Eventually, the only difference between one device and another will be the size of the screen and, perhaps, the number of people in any given environment. The reason this is important is because many people talk about social media being a one-to-one communication tool. But it really isn't. Social media is a one-to-many, one-to-niche, one-to-one communication tool at the same time. And that is where communication practitioners need to adjust their thinking.