Saturday, February 28, 2009


Social Media has done a lot for fame. While reality TV shows went a long way to enabling the average Joe and Jane to realize Andy Warhol’s prediction that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes in the future, I read recently that Social Media is ensuring that in the future, at least social network users will be famous to fifteen people.

Reality TV has also changed our notions of reality—especially since it is actually a highly scripted medium—but I won’t give up any trade secrets here and the question of "what is reality after reality shows?" is better left for another post. While the medium of the Web has famously wired us all as global citizens—at least the billion of us who are now online worldwide—social media has also had the flipside of making our local "neighborhood" more relevant.

Social networks are now populated by over a quarter of a billion users, so the possibilities of growing one’s own network seem as big as a customized pyramid scheme. Facebook, however, places limits on how big or famous you can actually be. Currently, you can have up to 100 Friend Lists and up to 1500 friends per Friend List. The multiple isn't bad, considering that if you maximized your Lists to the limit, it represents the reach of a new music release that has done extremely well by today’s standards. Remember when a gold record award celebrated sales of CDs, tapes or vinyl of over 500,000 units and the platinum of one-million? Now, a 50,000 seller is cause for…well, some kind of celebration.

So, the Social Media Effect has made our own local universe of possibilities expansive, but compared with the expanding universe of Internet pages numbering over a trillion last summer, the world of social media has, in fact, shrunk-wrapped us all. One might find a distributed computer strategy handy to manage a social network that expanded beyond the known limits circumscribed by hosting and bandwidth on MySpace, Facebook, Bebo and other networks. Even for the media famous, there seems to be an organic eco-system dictating just how big social networks can grow—managing director of Garage Technology Ventures, Apple fellow, co-founder of Alltop, author and guru, Guy Kawasaki has 11,290 fans on his Facebook page. Still, if Guy decided to record and release an album to his "fans" and it sold through, he wouldn’t even make a dent on the Billboard charts.

What is happening has been best described just by the title of marketing genius, Seth Godin’s worthy and fun book, Small Is the New Big: and 183 Other Riffs, Rants, and Remarkable Business Ideas. It’s not necessarily a new idea—economist E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful is not only a seminal text in its call for sustainable development, but in its advocacy of the small. A core idea growing out of the author’s study of village-based economics is its assertion of “Buddhist economics” summarized in Wikipedia: "[A modern economist] is used to measuring the 'standard of living' by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is 'better off' than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption…The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity."

The notion of the small having a far reaching impact goes back in Western culture to the Butterfly Effect theory first described in 1890, later in a 1952 Ray Bradbury short story about time travel (informing the phenomenon known as time paradox), and made popular by Edward Lorenz as part of Chaos Theory and his study of computer models of weather prediction.

Lorenz published his work in 1963 and presented it at the New York Academy of Sciences where "One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull's wings could change the course of weather forever." The seagull was eventually replaced with the poetry of the butterfly and at an American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972, Philip Merilees concocted a title for Lorenz’s paper as: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” When we update our social network status, we are flapping our virtual wings.

Social networks are an organic growth the Web’s key value proposition of personalizing the world. The expansive potential of one’s personal social network is more akin to the relationship of the microcosmic—in this case, the personality—and the personal macrocosmic—or its potential reach to scores, hundreds, if not thousands of friends who then orbit our individual pages waiting for the next transmission of what we are doing, thinking, loving, sharing. But how deep can the quality and definition of “friend” be when it numbers in the thousands?

Charles and Ray Eames provided a stunning, classic video and book version of the relationship between the micro and the macro in their Powers of Ten. But humans need the comfort of scale in the form of intimate relationships, family, sports teams, fan sites, personal networks, and other tribal affiliations. The stars may be “all connected to the brain” as Pete Townshend once wrote in “Pure and Easy”, but sometimes the sprawl of thousands of stars on a clear night can present a canvas that is daunting as hell and not heaven in its infinite possibilities beyond human comprehension. We humans also have a tendency to get lost in a crowd.

Or as Elias Canetti once observed in his Crowds and Power, a fire sometimes has more power to unify a theater than a play can. The individual has the power to understand "the play is the thing" as a primary experience. But the natural force of fire has an elemental power that everyone understands with his or her reptilian brain—it’s fight or flight time, baby and ain’t no time to think about it when the whole shithouse is going up in flames.

Social Media theory posits that the group mind and crowd actually has the power to think and maybe even think better than one lowly Mensa member. But Canetti also said that the ultimate crowd may be the tribal pack of spermatozoa out of which, only one, has enough fame potential to survive the swim upstream to party down with the egg. So, let's send out the smoke signal--Social Media needs its own Darwin to sort out the details of who will best survive.

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