Social Media is NOT an Innovation

Way back in 1999, the man who invented the World Wide Web, Al Gore Tim Berners-Lee, wrote a book about how he created the Web, called “Weaving the Web: The Ulitmate Destiny of the World Wide Web by its Inventor“. I have the original, hard cover edition of this book. I’m not sure if it’s been updated in the newer editions or not. Here’s the most striking quote from the whole thing:

The Web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect – to help people work together – and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world. We clump into families, associations, and companies. We develop trust across the miles and distrust around the corner. What we believe, endorse, agree with, and depend on is representable and, increasingly represented on the Web. We all have to ensure that the society we build with the Web is of the sort we intend.

— Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web

Wow.

Berners-Lee wrote this in ’99, and if you read the book, it turns out he’s been thinking about this concept of a worldwide social web since sometime in the 1970’s.

1999. It was the infancy of Google. It was pre-Wordpress blogs. Definitely pre-Twitter, podcasting, Digg, Delicious, and StumbleUpon, and any of the other many tools that we use in this space we call “social media”. Back in a time when a web page was not much more than plain text on a screen and even before that, Berners-Lee had incredible foresight. It’s a common misconception that Berners-Lee invented the Web for computer programmers and scientists. In fact, he invented it for everyone.

He actually had to jump through a lot of hoops at CERN where he worked. He snuck around, trying out his project on people, all while making it “look” like he was building something that only physicists could make use of. All the while, he was building a tool that would allow for sharing, communication and collaboration by everyone, anywhere in the world.

Skip forward to 2008 and we now have what many consider a real innovation called “social media”.  Well, I’ve got news for you. Social media is not an innovation. It’s the raison d’etre for the Web. Social media is merely the buzzword we’ve decided to attach to what was the original point of Berners-Lee’s invention. It’s the evolution of what he described as the ultimate goal, “to support and improve our weblike existence in the world”.

Case in point: Imagine if suddenly, Twitter was gone. Vanished. A permanent Fail Whale sort of gone. Imagine if suddenly, your blog disappeared, or the blog of your favourite blogger ceased to exist. Imagine a world with no Stumbleupon, or Digg, or YouTube, or Delicious. Whatever would we do?

I know what we’d do. We’d find another way to connect. Someone would build another tool, and we’d all head over there. Or maybe we’d actually meet in person where feasible, and connect that way. What I do know is, resourceful as we are, we’d find a way to still carry on the conversation that we’ve started here. We’d still have our weblike existence, because that’s how the Web is set up.

In the end, whether something is labeled as “social media” or not might be a moot point. This has become more and more apparent to me in recent weeks. There’s a shift happening. Maybe you’ve felt it too, depending on how involved you are in your networks and what you’ve been reading. The focus is starting to move away from the latest new tools, gadgets and technical creations, and more towards what Berners-Lee envisioned as a “social creation”.

More and more of the conversations I’m reading and having are about the social marvel that is the Web itself …not the marvel that is “social media”. This is a really, really good thing. It means that we are starting to move beyond the latest craze/gadget/guru phase. The environment is maturing. Communication, collaboration and communities are starting to become the mainstream ways in which people are using the Web. The social Web is no longer just for the “social media crowd”. I suspect, over the next 6 months, that this is going to become even more prevalent. I also suspect, that over the next little while, our label of “social media” is going to, if not go away, at least change.

10 years ago, people saw the Web was a place to get information. Today, more and more people are seeing it as a place to connect. Therein lies the difference. The shift to this thinking in the mainstream is going to be the next big revolution on the Web. It’s going to be the realization of Berners-Lees’  incredible vision. As he says, the “Web society” is forming before our eyes. We are ultimately all responsible for how this new society takes shape.

How do you think things will shape up?