A measure of success for social media

The term “Bubble 2.0” comes up quite a bit lately when not too long ago it seemed we had broken the bubble-bust cycle we last saw in the late 1990s. For those who were not conscious of the bubble bursting last time around, it was a heady time when there was a Web site for everything and the hype dictated that if you didn’t have a Web site then you were so dead! As in the Dodo. Then many people who were caught up in ridiculously high valued IPOs for Web sites selling tractor parts and nappies over the Web realised that there should ideally be some solid business rationale for these wacky Web businesses and the whole edifice started to crumble.

When the dust began to settle the optimists were talking about “clicks and mortar” (a business with a Web presence, but a business nevertheless) and the pessimists were probably hoping for a return to the basics: typewriters and post that uses stamps and paper. And so began a few dark years when business confidence in Web based technologies waned and a return to the basics was a top priority.

Around the same time the bubble burst The Cluetrain Manifesto started doing the rounds and it laid the foundation for the next generation of Web application: the social networking site. Eventually people started to take a closer look at some of the emerging Web-based technologies like blogs, then podcasts and the whole social media phenomenon and pretty soon we were firmly entrenched in a Web 2.0 world. Pretty soon we were blogging, sharing and talking about Web 2.0. We started to see amazing Web applications like Flickr, Blogger, YouTube and a host of similar sites and services, not to mention all the mashups (sites which combine and rehash functionality of more dedicated sites). Tech news became a veritable cornucopia of bright, rounded badges, names and fonts promising new ways to share everything from our photos, thoughts and videos to our wardrobe (seriously, such a service existed/exists) and other arbitrary aspects of our lives. We were suddenly sharing everything and there were new ways to share things better and with more flair than ever before.

Locally we have started to see a similar thing happening with a couple video sharing sites launching, followed by a couple local blog aggregators. So far it is more a case of a pioneer and one or two upstarts who have a different take on the model and I think it has worked out pretty well. We have local flavour and some choice and yet we are starting to see the “me too’s” starting to emerge starting with a third blog aggregator and a project to build a directory of blogs (a good year or two after Justin Hartmann developed SA Top Sites and SA Blog Top Sites – I could never get the name of that one right). A third blog aggregator may prove to be better than the first two, then again it may just prove to be a case of yet another service jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon. The end result is an overwhelming focus on building the next startup to be sold for $1.65 billion (or some other unimaginable amount of money) and not on the important stuff.

What happened to the focus on why we do all this stuff? Why are we sharing, blogging, podcasting? What is the point? Are we sharing for the sake of sharing or is there something more? I mentioned that The Cluetrain Manifesto laid the foundation for what was to come and in my mind it did. Cluetrain is the philosophical parent of social media and everything that flows from there and by “social media” I am talking about media that inspires, facilitates and develops conversations. That is what it is all really about – conversations. The rest is icing on the cake. This whole thing started because a group of people (customers/employees/underdogs of some description) wanted to have their say. They wanted to speak back to the faceless company that previously inundated them with shotgun PR bull and be more involved in the processes that affected their daily lives. They wanted a conversation with a real, live human being. On the other side of the corporate facade, company people also wanted to break out of the reservation and connect to their customers and find out what they thought about what they were doing and so social media was born, Web 2.0 was born. That is why we do what we do. This whole business is really about communicating, having conversations. In a sense we are striving to create a global version of the local market which our ancestors apparently frequented back in the day, except with streaming video and quick access to knowledge stored anywhere in the global net.

So next time you consider the success of a social media/Web 2.0 app, forget about how flashy it is or how it is so much cooler than the other app that preceded it. Consider what kinds of conversations your app facilitate, stimulate or fuel and if they are good conversations then you have done well. Everything else is secondary.

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