“You people,” sighed the Silicon Scout, shaking his head. “You and your websites. The web is like, so over.”
We sit on a non-profit board of directors together, the Scout and I. He’s one of the guys known to technology marketers as “early adopters.” The first guy with a cellphone, a fax machine, an MP3 player. The first guy with an infrared mouse for his computer. The first guy to send you photos he took on his phone. (On his phone?)
The Scout is considerably younger than most of us — well, he would be, wouldn’t he? — and during the breaks in the meetings, he would be texting and surfing on his iPhone. If we needed to know the price of a doughnut in Dacca, the Scout could find out in a wink.
So there we were, trying to figure out what was needed on our organization’s website, and here was the Scout, heaving youthful sighs and saying, “You people. You and your websites. The web is like, so over.”
Over? The Internet is over? I was utterly bewildered.
Well, no. The Internet is not over. But the World Wide Web is not the Internet. The web lies on the Internet like a quilt on a bed — and, like a quilt, it makes the Internet much more comfortable and attractive. And the web remains — but the action has moved to “social media” like Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and, above all, Facebook.
I wrote about social media in 2008, when Facebook had only been accessible to the general public for two years and already had 100 million users. Twitter, even younger, made me quite crotchety, with its ceaseless drizzle of 140-character “tweets” about users going for coffee, praying for rain and scratching themselves privily. What, I asked, “is the point of this torrent of narcissistic nonsense?”
Good question. But it missed the larger issue, which is that the web is relatively static and passive, and social media are dynamic. A website is like a brochure or a billboard, providing information to people who come looking. A social media site is a conversation, a buzz, an instantaneous international grapevine.
Your Facebook or Tumblr or YouTube page is a busker’s performance. You put your stuff out there and passersby look at it, engage you in conversation or walk on by. If they like it, they tweet to the grapevine and the world comes to watch.
So, for example, in the nine days after Susan Boyle sang that electrifying version of I Dreamed a Dream on British television in April 2009, YouTube videos of the performance were watched more than 100 million times. Think of that: a hundred million times! When her album came out in November, it sold nine million copies in six weeks, becoming the bestselling album of the year.
Barack Obama largely owes his presidency to his ability to galvanize people and generate huge streams of cash by using social media. During the World Cup, reporters were tweeting furiously on their smartphones while the action was still unfolding — reporting not to their editors but directly to the hordes following them on Twitter.
Social media allow smart entrepreneurs to create great instant businesses and to reach customers they could never reach before. The trick is to pick a niche, create great content within that niche and give a lot of it away.
Natalie MacLean, for example, a Cape Bretoner with a spectacularly successful wine site, gives away tons of information about wine and food.
She’ll even provide you with a little program for your smartphone that allows you to browse her recommendations as you cruise the aisles of the liquor store.
If you want her reviews of specific wines, complete with matched food recipes, it’s only $2.10 a month.
Facebook was cooked up in a Harvard dorm in 2004 by a couple of undergraduates. Today it’s an $11.5-billion company with 400 million users. Entertainment Weekly summed it up thus: “How on earth did we stalk our exes, remember our co-workers’ birthdays, bug our friends and play a rousing game of Scrabulous before Facebook?”