Fighting History – Fragmentation and the Social Web
Posted by Michael Dossett
“History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.” -John F. Kennedy
For nearly a century, technology has purportedly brought together the fragments of society. With universal access to common information, previously disconnected groups can unite. History has proven, however, that this initial period of universality eventually trends back toward fragmentation. Can the social Web fight history and survive the seemingly inevitable re-fragmentation?
After Dark Ages, the explosion of printing and publishing in the 15th century led to a significant spread of knowledge and the rebirth of intellectual curiosity. Knowledge was no longer exclusively based on hearsay, and people sought information from trusted academic and historical resources. Outside academic circles, media sources like newspapers and general information magazines boomed in popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries. For the first time in generations, people could discuss common events and share their opinions on similar topics. Previously fragmented societies were unified. The world’s longest running magazine, the general information-focused Saturday Evening Post, lasted 148 years. Over time, however, general interest publications died out as public interest waned, and niche publications that catered to unique, specialized interests became the only sustainable media outlets. (There are nearly 7,000 special interest magazines in publication today.)
Radio, commercialized by RCA’s David Sarnoff after World War I, removed some of the adoption barriers that characterized print media. The famous voices of Edward R. Murrow and Franklin D. Roosevelt – for the first time in history – were broadcast to millions of people at a time across the airwaves. Radio was a national phenomenon, and the medium had a powerful unifying impact on society. Millions of people shared common listening experiences and had access to the same information. For twenty years, the country was bound together by radio until a new medium came along: television. Television forced radio programming to cater to niche audiences, and the medium that once unified society fragmented it once again. (See also: How the Internet is Transforming Television.)
Starting to notice a pattern? The Internet is a unique medium, allowing virtually anyone, anywhere to become a source of content. More than any other medium, the Internet has created fragmented user experiences. The social Web is, of course, founded on the platform of unifying users based on their social connections to create a more personal Web experience. So can it buck the historical trend that has re-fragmented user bases in previous media?
Social media is the product of constantly evolving, improving and competing technology, and is heavily integrated in a range of Web content. Social products improve user experiences by taking into account a plethora of data and using this data to provide increasingly relevant content and people to share it with. Social media has exploded in popularity over the last five years, but it is easy to argue the market is still in its relative infancy. Mobile social products like Instagram, Foursquare and Twitter are connecting people across the globe in new ways, and social media has initiated a new Web paradigm. The transformational nature of new media technologies has united societies and re-fragmented them again and again, but social media has the opportunity to transcend the biting force of history and remain a powerful connecting force for many years to come.