Human society has always worked on a very simple principle
People do things and they continue to do them until someone tells them to stop. They either acquiesce or they fight (and sometimes win).
Everyone has different ideas on how things should work, and sometimes people have even started wars over it. Sometimes wars are about who should be the leader or about resources but sometimes they are more about ideas.
We gave this principle a very simple name: power
Who has power and how does it work?
In tribal times, it was the tribal chief, who was physically strong, charismatic and liked by those around him that had the power. Power is very simply the ability to do things without impedance, and the ability to get people to do things for you.
In a community of people, organisation is imperative. It can be draconian or liberal, but it requires some sort of agreement amongst the agents in that community of who decides what they should do.
In feudal times, it was the king, with his access to wealth, and a standing army, that was able to convince people either by threat or actual violence to do what he wanted.
In pre internet capitalism, it was the industry magnate, using his massive wealth as a bargain chip, that got his way.
But the internet has changed everything.
The reason for this is actually very simple. It has democratised communication, which has profound implications for power.
The key to getting power is getting people to come along with you. Throughout history, various strategies have been used to convince people (I gave a few examples before). The core of it really, is language and politics.
No matter if you are a chief or an emperor, you absolutely need to get people to go along with you. Chief, kings, CEOs and emperors have all failed because they failed to understand this very fundamental aspect of human relations. Power has never, and will never exist as an abstract entity.
You can never just grab actual power. It is only ever be done through people. I know it seems obvious that power doesn’t actually exist. It’s only a metaphor to explain human relations. But emperors and kings have fallen because they think it is the crown, or gold, or shares, or ships, or knights that bring power. It has and always will be people to have power and leaders who try to go against this always end up failing.
How does this tie into social media, I hear you ask?
A huge part of the dynamics of power is the ability to have people listen to you (because you are important enough to listen to) and to ability to put a message out. Social media has democratised communication.
A large part of why the American colonists were able to win the revolutionary war is because their leaders were much closer than the British army in America. It was much easier to communicate and to organise.
Local newspapers would write stories about the things the British were doing and this would affect the local population. The people running the newspapers had the power to put out any story they wish. This ability to communicate to a wide audience was not available to everyone.
Traditional media before the internet had a huge amount of power. They could promote politicians, artists, authors or anything else they liked.
If you wanted to make a living making media, you had to get a large media company to support you. It was just not possible to get a message out there by yourself. You would have to get help from a media company.
The internet has changed things though because now everyone can get a message out. We still rely on infrastructure like artists in pre internet times relied on a media company, but this time the platforms are for the most part agnostic as to what happens on them.
The infrastructure which was closely guarded before and only a set few were allowed to use is now available for all. The changes in media over the last couple of decades are already showing what is possible. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit allow many people to get their message out that wouldn’t have been able to speak to such a large audience before.
The recent United Airlines debacle was only possible because people filmed it and put it up online for millions to see. Brian Williams was caught in a lie by someone who was able to send a message through social media.
Let me sum up my thoughts on social media and then I will conclude with addressing the title of this article.
Social media is a revolution in communication. Anyone can get their message out and that message can go around the world. This is completely different than any other stage in history. Communication is at the core of the human experience and being able to communicate with millions of people around the world is a revolutionary development.
So, you might ask, how can social media change the world?
This really goes to the core of the human experience. Power is a nebulous and ephemeral thing that nonetheless has a huge effect on our world.
Can things change in this complex world of ours? Are things destined to be driven only by those at the top? No, not anymore. We all are able to make a choice now to let our voices be heard.
Now more than ever we can have our say and actually have our messages go further than just our local community. Our message can go around the world.
Let me close this by going back to the beginning. People will continue to do things until someone tells them to stop. We are all social beings. We learn from our surroundings. If we only ever hear one message, we will only ever know one way of doing things. Social media is allowing the whole world to connect, and that is already starting to change things and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
So next time you feel guilty because you have been spending too much time on Facebook sharing cat pictures, just know that you are, in your own small way, changing the world 😉