On our blog's fifth birthday, a look back (and forward)A brief history of social media, seen through five years of conversation

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Five birthday candles

On October 6, 2005, Alex pushed "publish" on the first official blog post of this blog.

In most other disciplines, five years would make us the scrappy up-and-comer, struggling to earn our street cred. But in social media, it gives us perhaps the closest thing there is to historical perspective. In fact, we're quite possibly the world's oldest 100-per-cent social media (or, at the time, "Web 2.0") agency.

We've seen this field grow – explosively, and far more quickly than even we expected. We've seen it change constantly. And along the way, we've had plenty of conversations with prospects and clients.

Those conversations haven't just reflected whichever platform happens to be the new hotness (although there's always plenty of that). Instead, they have more to do with the way organizations and businesses are scrambling, struggling and, hopefully, succeeding in coming to grips with social media.

Each year, it seems, has brought a new kind of conversation as the social media world continues its high-speed expansion and transformation. And looking back over those conversations, we can trace the history of social media – and get a peek at the trajectory of where it's going from here.

2005: "Why would I want to talk with my customers/members?"

In 2010, it can be hard to remember that just 5 years ago, marketing was almost entirely about message push. The web was something you used to get a message out, and if you were smart, and kept your e-mail address hidden, it didn't have to add to your customer relations "burden" at all.

In a world of message push, the idea of actively pursuing online conversations with customers struck lots of people as lunacy. Once we explained to someone exactly what we did – "we help you conversations with your members" – we'd get an incredulous, sometimes panicked look. We might as well have offered to randomize the entries in their account ledgers, disable their burglar alarms and poison the office philodendrons.

"But we have a voicemail system exactly so we don't have to have conversations with our customers," they'd reply. "They'd use up staff time, complain about us publicly and even if they're saying nice things, they'll be way off message."

In those early, skeptical days, our best ally was Technorati. Show a team their organization's Technorati page, and it was usually the first time they'd seen all the people already talking about them online. The only question then was: do you want to be part of that conversation?

2006: "Can you build us our own social network?"

For organizations that responded with a big yes! to the idea of a conversation with members or customers, that idea usually took one form: an independent, self-hosted, just-our-folks social network. The early vision of the social web was one in which every organization thought it could have its own MySpace (they didn't yet know that they wanted to have their own Facebook).

However you feel today about Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, there's no question that people have voted with their (digital) feet, choosing these broad-based, multi-topic networks over a universe in which every online community required its own separate login, where you had to recreate your network of contacts each time, and where your chances of finding your peeps on any given site were usually diminishingly small.

2007: "What do you mean, 'engagement strategy'?"

By 2007, we were talking to organizations willing to spend the money they needed to build a social online presence – at least, to buy the technology and design needed to create a site that could house a community.

But most of them would balk at the idea of spending any more money to actually bring that community to life. "Don't you just build it and then let it happen organically?" more than one person asked us. Field of Dreams was quoted to us just a little too often.

We'd reply that, if you build it, either they won't come... or the folks who do show up will be spammers, flame warriors or cranks with especially aggressive bees in their bonnets. And as proof, we'd take them on a tour of the growing number of sites that had been created with no plan for promoting participation and engaging users. These would-be communities wound up as empty, abandoned cities, waiting in futility for user-generated content that would never arrive.

Some people responded by scaling back their projects to free up enough resources to animate their communities. Others realized that, while they could sell a budget request for something concrete like a web site, investing in engagement just wouldn't fly... and so, instead of wasting their organization's money, they wisely shelved their projects for a while. Today, we're delighted to see so many organizations reversing that equation, and spending their money on content and animation rather than on building elaborate online homes for which they have no tenants.

2008: "Can you get David Suzuki to blog for us?"

We're guessing that if you live in the Bay Area, everybody wants a blogger from Google or Apple, and if you live in London, everybody wants Madonna or Richard Branson. Well, in Vancouver, the celebrity blogger that every single client and prospect talked about it 2008 was David Suzuki.

Early in the year, we started to hear the same suggestion in meeting after meeting – from clients as disparate as ad agencies to large corporations to tourist destinations to retail chains to non-profits: "Hey – what if we got David Suzuki to guest-blog?"

Not just, "What if we got (celebrity X) to guest-blog?" Specifically David Suzuki.

With concern over climate change and carbon footprints peaking, it was probably not that surprising that Canada's foremost environmental commentator would be the top-of-mind pick. But behind the suggestion was the idea that a marquee name was all that would be needed to make an idea fly.

Noting the success of Fake Steve Jobs, we toyed with the idea of Fake David Suzuki; he certainly had a long list of potential clients. But ultimately we decided in favour of what you could call the Uber-Suzuki: to focus not on the environmentalist himself, but on what he represented to our clients.

And what he represented was a sign of the growing maturity of what was by then being called "social media". In its infancy, social media was seen as devastatingly straightforward: open a site, and in comes a community. Suzuki-itis told us that our clients now recognized the level of commitment that was required to make a social media presence succeed, and saw that they faced competitive pressure – not only from their offline competition, but from the appeal of sites like YouTube and the newly surging Facebook.

That crystallized our focus on helping clients develop the ultimate competitive advantage: a great social media concept. We helped each of our clients find that concept: the structure of tools, content and relationships that can deliver compelling value to both users and the organization. Without it, even the coolest celebrity ("We've genetically fused David Suzuki and Lady Gaga!") can't turn a project into more than a flash in the pan.

2009: "Can you get me some social media?"

2009 was the year we cashed in, sold our agency to Google, and started a brilliant, social media-enabled nonprofit that radically transformed one of society's toughest problems.

Or at least, that's what we were led to expect from Starting Your Own Social Media Agency: The Missing Manual.

If there had been a Missing Manual for social media start-ups, 2009 would have been the year it found its market. Overnight, it seemed like every web agency had become a social media agency, every advertising agency had added social media to its repertoire, and every major company had its own social media team. The gold-rush mentality held full sway, as evidenced by the profusion of what Alex likes to call Jimmy's-Facebook-'n'-Things operations, not to mention the number of "Get rich with social media!" scams that were flourishing online.

Suddenly we weren't having to explain social media to people, or convince them that it could yield a tangible return in customer loyalty, member retention, public engagement or reduced customer service costs. Instead, we were taking calls by the dozens from people eager to take the plunge. With some, we were happy to help.

Others, though, were looking less for a chance to build relationships and communities, and more for a way to spray a social media patina onto their prefab broadcast-style marketing approach.  2009 was the year we realized that the long-run challenge of working in social media wasn't convincing people to do it: it was convincing people to do it in a way that would create real value for their members, customers and the web.

2010: "How can I keep up?"

This year, we realized that we need to watch more reality television. If we were devoted viewers of Hoarders, The Biggest Loser and Intervention, we would have foreseen that the natural successor to enthusiastic consumption is horrific excess.

Now that social media has become a mainstream part of our culture, the challenge is no longer one of encouraging uptake (though we still love to guide people towards effective uptake); the challenge is to help people cope with our own culture of excess. Too much email, too much Twitter, too much Facebook, too much iPhone Blackberry Android whatever...it's just too much for us. So how do we learn how to roll with these tools so that they work for us instead of against us?

That's been a growing focus for Alex's blogging, and it comes up everywhere – client meetings, presentations and trainings. Clients, prospects, participants and students talk about feeling overwhelmed, and losing valuable information – and human connections – in the flood of data. We find that, increasingly, we're helping people to put social media back to work for them instead of the other way around.

But that's actually good news. Because the discussion has gone from "Why would I want to have these conversations?" to "How can I have better conversations?"

Our clients now understand a lot more about these tools; our prospects don't do that "wha'a?" head tilt when we say words like "Twitter"; our workshop participants are often thoroughly networked and actively participating online.

That means we get to have great, challenging conversations, too – on this blog, in the physical world and in points in between. We hope we'll get to have some of them with you.

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