There’s an enormous amount of talk and funding around the idea the information is the golden goose at the center of social media. There’s certainly something to be said for mapping out a person’s social existence and distilling it into marketable tidbits, but I think there’s good reason to suspect that the trajectory of social is heading toward a separate outcome. The winning investment is in optimizing the exchange of sentiments – emotionally charged tidbits the form the foundation of social sharing.
If I were a betting man (I am), I’d be inclined to place a sizable wager that social’s primary application will become the rapid transmission of sentiments rather than facts. The future will be a beating social heart.
Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s look at Facebook, the ultimate repository of a person’s interpersonal network. There are any number of major acquisitions that Facebook might undertake to expand its ability to gather, organize and monetize information, but strangely its largest purchase to date was Instagram, a photo sharing app that generates nominal income. The acquisition makes some sense when one considers Instagram’s position as a mobile photo powerhouse and Facebook’s massive push to expand its offerings related to photos. Photos.
There just isn’t a lot of “information” associated with a photograph. Maybe you can pull the metadata on the location, but there’s not a lot to be gleaned from a photo unless Facebook has developed a tool capable of scrying the image itself (I shudder at the privacy advocates response to that). Photos aren’t about information. They’ve become a central feature of Facebook because they engender the greatest reaction from a person’s social network. A picture of a newborn child or a blushing bride shocks people out of their lurker complacency and inspires them to contribute. They partake in the emotionally charged moment and participate as a result. Experiencing these emotions drive retention, engagement, and enjoyment.
I’ve decried the fact that technology has increased the connections between people while decreasing the depth of those relationships. Things like photographs have the ability to expand those relationships beyond the occasional “Like.” Without emotion, social media is a very flat experience – like reading a telephone book that just happens to list only the numbers of people you know. While the information that Sally is now friends with Betty may be useful to Facebook, it is not particularly interesting to Sally or Betty’s broader networks. However, Betty’s comment on the picture of Sally’s newborn can ellicit contented sighs from all involved.
A more striking example occured recently on Reddit. A 23-year-old with terminal cancer hosted an “Ask Me Anything” thread that garnered a lot of attention. The kid made an immediate impact with his honesty, courage, and good nature. He spoke of the things he had, the things he intended to do, and the things he wished he had the time/resources for. I’m not particularly prone to emotional devastation but that thread pretty much rocked my world. It’s not every day you get such a direct window into mortality.
Anyways, Reddit, a community of trolldom the likes this world rarely sees, was similarly touched. Within 24 hours of the post, a fundraiser popped up so the kid could have the chance to experience one last vacation without thought of financial constraints. The fundraiser targeted a raise of $2500. A paltry sum. Particularly when compared to the $30,000 the 1100 donors ultimately gave. The actions of the Reddit community inspired headlines.
That is what it can do. It can drive the human race forward. It makes cynical douchebags into caretakes of the human spirit. It can be the heart of a revolution (Twitter in Egypt). It can bring clean water to those condemned to thirst (all night game-a-thons for Charity:Water on Twitch). It can crack the hardened exterior of a species increasingly defined by its superficial interactions and open up the core of benevolence.
Social isn’t a platform for data, it’s a platform for people. Social will thrive as it moves beyond the facts and into the feelings. Photos are just the beginning – they let us understand that a person is deeper than the simple information available on the profile. That there is depth beyond a person’s gender, current location, and place of employment. Social hasn’t arrived until it can convey who we are. Until it can connect us via the hopes, beliefs, and dreams that define us. Social isn’t alive until it has a heart.
JM: Wow. 100% agreed.