The hype around social media just keeps getting louder. Every week a new campaign and a new platform is released. So why has social media gone mainstream?

Online networks, including social ones, evolve and take on a life of their own. In the real world, for multi-celled organisms to exist a number of cells must work together to make something bigger. When individual cellular components work together multi-celled organisms evolve and these can evolve into complex life forms over time. A branch of these complex life-forms evolved and eventually became humans. Human civilization has in turn evolved to where we are now because we have mastered the art of continually grouping together into teams, tribes, cities, and nation states to create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Networking and collaboration is fundamental to what it means to be human. In our bodies are atoms working together to create cells and cells working together to create our organs. In our brains neurons work together to create our thoughts, feelings and language. In your company people are working together – to create something bigger and more exciting than the sum of its parts. We can take this thinking and look at the development of the personal computer and see a very similar pattern emerging.

Before anyone had a computer or a smart phone, everything was a social event. Meetings were face-to-face, or over the phone at least, and communication in general was human to human based. In the last 30 years things have changed. Initially, the personal computer made everything a private and secluded affair. Games, for example, could be played without the help of another human and work could happen sitting in front of a screen. The advent of the early Internet showed how powerful many computers networked together could be, but from a personal perspective ‘computing’ was an insular activity.

The first social networks, forums and blogs worked with a huge number of anonymous users. While this was a step forward in person-to-person networking, the anonymity allowed people to behave in ways that they wouldn’t ever dream of in real life. This left many of these networks to be the domain of the very early adopters and special interest groups. The ‘rules’ that govern effective social networks were yet to be developed.

What has happened recently, particularly with Facebook, is that it has become far easier to transport your real identity around the web. This means that increasingly people are joining new social networks with their ‘real identity’: their real name; their place of work; and other details that define them as a person in a movement – sometimes referred to as the ‘Open Web.’ Naturally this makes people think more carefully about what they say and how they behave on social networks – because they ‘own’ their comments the common rules of society come into play. When a person’s reputation is attached to what they say it makes them think carefully about what that comment might mean to others.

Of course people can still misbehave in social networks, like they can in real world networks, but the networks are now being governed by majority rule so this behavior is quickly dealt with. This makes cooperation and collaboration much easier and because of this the barriers to entry are dropping at an astronomical rate. Companies can now start to feel more secure in setting up their own networks knowing that majority of users will join to get value out of the information that is provided and quickly deal with other users who lessen the overall value of that network.

So when thinking about why social media has become so widely adopted and pondering about where it is going avoid getting distracted by the leaps in technology. These are important, of course, but it is the behavior of the network and the developments of new social norms that are really driving the progress. Every individual in this massive network is doing what he or she is pre-programmed to do – communicate, collaborate, and continue the march of our civilization’s evolution.

The future of the Social Web will see openness and ownership of communication adopted on a much greater scale as the tools to do so become more wide spread and easier to adopt. The potential economic benefits of social media will force this to happen. Companies can and will want access to increasingly granular data about their ‘stakeholders’ – employees, supporters, and consumers. Knowing what individuals are saying, how they are behaving and who is influencing them is critical and valuable information.

With Facebook’s release of its new developer tools in April this year, there has been an even bigger push towards the Open Web – something that many market analysts are predicting will make the eventual float of Facebook bigger than that of Google’s IPO. The rules governing online social networks are beginning to mature. Unsurprisingly, they closely reflect those that exist in offline world.

By Mark R Cameron (c) 2010