Though I work full-time on social media for the World Bank, my career started in public broadcasting. “Radio is the modern version of oral tradition,” a former journalism professor of mine would say, likening radio to the way in which people have communicated for years: using stories, narratives, to connect, to break down complex ideas into concrete pieces. That line resonated with me, summing up the power of radio to connect people using the shared experience of a broadcast.
Radio was – and still is - one of the most intimate forms of media ever created. It comes right into our homes, our cars, our showers (if you are lucky enough to have a shower). I’d wager that in any city in the world, people spend more time with the radio than they do any other form of media.
Unless they’re on Facebook. That’s different. I can’t recall when Facebook started getting more of my time than did the radio. Probably not long after I joined Facebook, in 2007. Four years ago, Facebook had 30 million users.
Contrast that with Monday’s news that Facebook has surpassed 600 million users worldwide. And if you’re one of the 81% of World Bank Facebook subscribers who are outside the United States, then you’ll be happy to know that Facebook’s next frontier isn’t the developed-world iPad, it’s the humble developing-world feature phone. Alluding to the chunky shape of low-tech phones, a WIRED blogger nicely put it: “Got a Candy Bar Phone? There’s a Facebook app for that.”
There’s nothing so personal as one’s mobile phone. We carry it everywhere. Lots of us use mobiles as alarm clocks. It’s our radio receiver with an audience of one, and we can use it to broadcast back out to others. Mobiles bring us voices of loved ones, news alerts, even our banking (and in a few places, legal help via SMS). Last year, I heard Bharti Airtel CEO Manoj Kohli speak of the unbanked as he explained how India was on track to surpass 560 million mobile connections. “Whether it’s Bollywood entertainment or financial inclusion, millions of these people will have their first experience with such services through their wireless device,” Kohli said.
Some say Facebook is a threat to open communication, because the company is happy to have open sharing of information as long as it’s being shared on their platform. So far, I think Facebook has been a powerful force for good. At the World Bank, it allows us to hear directly from people all over the world, in real-time. It has enriched my personal life, making it easier to stay connected with people I’ve met around the world.
The internet’s history is littered with those who would create charming, walled gardens, though Tim Wu of Columbia University argues in The Master Switch that communication technologies (his book starts with the telegraph vs. telephone) tend to start off as great equalizers of information, and then become controlled by a few powerful interests.
So far, social media has prevailed over attempts to control it. And it may be the case that the ability of individuals to have their voices heard will depend on clashes between powerful interests (governments, service providers). As Alexis Madrigal writes on The Atlantic’s blog, Facebook’s security team became alarmed when Tunisian government security services began to wholesale steal user passwords and then delete accounts. Facebook fought back by changing its login protocols in Tunisia. From The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks:
If you need a parable for the potential and pitfalls of a social-media enabled revolution, this is it: the very tool that people are using for their activism becomes the very means by which their identities could be compromised.
Social media isn’t good or bad – it’s simply a technology, a tool for people to connect to one another. Just as radio was used to give courage to civilians in wartime Britain, it was also used to whip up anti-Semitism in Germany. Same technology, different objectives.
My grandfather worked at Zenith, and in his heyday, it was a radical idea to put a device inside your home that would let other people talk to you. This became a profound way for people to have a shared experience, but it seems quaint in comparison to today’s social media reality for so many of us. Let’s hope we humans can keep up.