Thesis 4: Social Media are the Third Millennium’s Defining Communications Trend

I don’t think this should really need lots of discussion and proof. In the era of Gutenberg and Luther, only the most profound works could be published via the printing press. Thus Luther’s 95 Theses and other works of eternal significance were candidates for mass distribution. Not much else was considered worthy of the expensive paper on which it would be printed.

And of course in those days mass distribution didn’t mean exactly universal distribution, but only to those who had the unusual opportunity and gift of literacy.

But even with limited literacy, Luther’s theses spread like a virtuous version of pandemic flu. They got people talking.

Over the ensuing 480 years or so, the ability to publish remained scarce and therefore precious. And for the last half century, there was a unique development in that a privileged class of editors and programmers could make tastes, and could decide what news was fit to print or worthy for airing.

So journalists attached to someone who owned a printing press, or (in the U.S.) an FCC-granted monopoly license, were unique in their ability to spread news and views to their community. News organizations sold their wares to consumers, or as Chris Anderson, Clay Shirky and others have noted, more accurately sold (or rented) their audiences to advertisers.

The economics of digital abundance and what Shirky calls unlimited perfect copyability, along with development of tools for self-publishing, means that we no longer are hostage to this privileged class. People like us can start a blog, or a podcast, or a YouTube channel that can be accessed from around the globe.

It doesn’t mean we necessarily have a huge audience for our views, but it does give us access, at least loosely based on merit, as judged by individuals instead of only the tastemakers.

The fact that only perhaps 10 percent of potential publishers actually avail themselves of these tools doesn’t lessen their significance.

In warfare the credible threat of force can be just as effective in accomplishing goals as the use of force is. Likewise, the fact that almost everyone has a digital camera at all times (thanks to the ubiquity of camera phones) means the potential cost of an organization treating someone badly is much higher.

In my presentations, I frequently illustrate this point with portions of the Social Media Revolution video, which begins with two questions:

Is social media a fad? Or is it the biggest shift since the Industrial Revolution?

While I agree the development of social media tools is as significant as anything since invention of the steam engine, the cotton gin and other outgrowths of the Industrial Revolution, I prefer to consider social media in the context of communications trends. In that regard, I believe it’s the biggest shift since Gutenberg. At least since Marconi.

In Thesis 3, I will discuss the anomalous (that’s a pretty sophisticated, Chancellor-like word, isn’t it?) nature of the mass media era, and why the era has ended, even as we continue to have mass media outlets in our communications ecosystem.

The fact that Gutenberg’s invention defined the 16th through the 19th centuries didn’t mean it completely replaced verbal communication. And broadcast media didn’t completely replace print in the 20th century. But each defined their era.

Likewise, social media define the Third Millenium, even though they haven’t (and won’t) completely replace mass media.

Meanwhile, here’s a screen shot from the Social Media Revolution video that puts it all in context in just a single frame:

Picture 8

If you have 4:22 to spare, here’s the video in its entirety:

So how do you answer those questions? To what would you compare the social media revolution?

Thesis 10: Social Media Can’t Make Up for Bad Products or Poor Service

Picture 7

Social media are not the panacea for all that ails the relationship between organizations and their customers or other stakeholders.

If you treat people badly, they now have not only the opportunity to take the story public, which they always had, but also the ability to tell the story themselves instead of having to rely on third parties like the news media to spread the word.

And of course, as we saw this year in the case of Dave Carroll’s spat with United Airlines, sometimes the story can both go viral and lead to mainstream news media coverage.

The basic story, if you haven’t heard, is told in this United Breaks Guitars video. The customer service representative could have kept the video from being made by simply agreeing to Mr. Carroll’s request for $1,200 in flight vouchers to reimburse his expense for fixing is $3,500 Taylor guitar. It would have cost United nothing in cash, but when Ms. Irlwig said “no” he said something to the effect, “Fine, I will just make a series of three YouTube videos with my story.” Here’s the second installment. If you haven’t watched both of those, take a minute to do so now. I’ll wait.

OK, now that you’re back, here are a few lessons or observations from this saga:

  1. This video didn’t happen because United had a YouTube channel. One of the fears some people have about engaging in social media is, “What if people say bad things about us?” But this video wasn’t posted to the United channel: it was on the SonsofMaxwell channel, which belonged to Mr. Carroll’s band.
  2. This video resonated, which is why it went viral. Anyone who has traveled by air extensively likely has some kind of horror story about poor customer service. If the video didn’t fit built-in perceptions, it wouldn’t have gotten anything like this attention.
  3. Treating the customer right is the solution. After nine months of haggling, Mr. Carroll was just looking for a way to recover what he had spent on guitar repairs. From his perspective, flight vouchers would have been almost as good as cash, as it would at least let him pay less out of pocket for future travel. If Ms. Irlwig agrees, the video doesn’t happen.

Social media can provide great listening tools to alert you to a problem that could blow up into a PR nightmare. But they don’t do any good if you don’t act based on what you hear. In this case, Mr. Carroll was right in Ms. Irlwig’s ear. No complicated listening tools needed. If you’re not going to do the right thing for your customers, social listening tools will be of little value.

As Amy Mengel put it at the time, the secret to avoiding a YouTube crisis is: “Don’t suck so much in the first place!

Thesis 2: Social Media Tools Overcome Inertia

Note: This post is part of a series providing fuller discussion for my 35 Social Media Theses. I welcome your feedback and comments to challenge and improve them.

In Thesis 1, I discussed how social media really aren’t completely new, since air was the original social medium. This leads us, however, to what is new:

Thesis 2: Electronic tools merely facilitate broader and more efficient transmission by overcoming inertia and friction.

What these electronic tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter do is not different in kind from what has happened with word of mouth since the dawn of civilization.

They just make it a whole lot easier.

People have always talked with friends and family about their experiences, including those with merchants and service providers. From which blacksmith did the best job with horseshoes a century ago to which dentist is best able to prevent pain, a huge portion of our “purchase” decisions have been and remain significantly affected by word-of-mouth.

As I mentioned in Thesis 1, word of mouth from patients and their families has been the top source of information for people who prefer Mayo Clinic, and it’s been that way for more than a century.

Now that word just spreads a lot faster.

So when someone writes on our Mayo Clinic Facebook wall, it’s available for the world to see…

Shannon Swing

…but more importantly, it may show up in her friends’ news feeds.

Social tools just mean that people are sharing with a lot more people, with a lot less effort.

Offline word of mouth is still more prevalent and more powerful than online, even with the new tools. Hearing a friend talk in person about an experience makes a deeper impression. And if a person, let’s call him Bob, is telling his friend Carl about his mysterious illness and his frustration that it hasn’t been diagnosed, if Carl tells him right then, at the point of need, about his good experience and recommends that Bob try Mayo, that’s obviously going to have deeper impact than a wall posting on Facebook.

But social media can have a broader impact. In the example above, Shannon’s wall posting was potentially visible to 300 million Facebook users, and the sharing she did with her Facebook friends was effortless. The act of writing was the act of sharing.

Likewise, when Rhonda King told the story of bringing her son Trevor to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion on the Mayo Clinic YouTube channel:

…It was seen by many more people than she could have spoken with personally. As of this writing, in fact, it’s been viewed more than 4,400 times. And while nothing is as powerful as face-to-face dialogue, I would argue that the impression Brenda made via video is both broad and deep, for those who have taken time to listen to what she had to say.

So while social media really are as old as human speech, as Thesis 1 says, there is something new and exciting about the ease with which messages can spread with social tools.

I say “merely” in Thesis 2 to emphasize the continuity of social tools with offline word-of-mouth. But don’t think that “merely” minimizes their impact. As we will discuss in the next two theses, social media tools are revolutionary in what they are doing to the anomalous mass media era of the 20th century.

Thesis 1: Air was the original social medium


Note: This post is part of the 35 Social Media Theses series, providing amplification and an opportunity for discussion of one of the theses originally posted on Reformation Day 2009.


In one sense, as I will argue in Thesis 4, the social media revolution is historic. But the fundamental issue to understand about social media is that, in their essence, they have been around from the beginning of human civilization. Or, as I put it in the first of my 35 Social Media Theses posted 492 years after Luther’s 95:

Social media are as old as human speech, with air being the medium through which sound waves propagated.

I have boiled that down further into the title of this post and in my presentation slides, in keeping with Seth Godin’s advice. I don’t completely agree with his arbitrary limit (never more than six words on a slide), but it’s good general guidance, so I try to comply when I can. And it’s nice to see that he relaxed the hard-and-fast limit with these helpful presentation tips.

For several millennia, “spreading the word” happened mainly by the propagation of sound waves through the mix of Nitrogen, Oxygen, Argon, water vapor, Carbon Dioxide (which is not a pollutant, by the way) and other chemicals that make up our atmosphere.

So whether it was news about a miraculous healer in the countryside of Judea or which merchant in the marketplace had the freshest produce, the way it was disseminated was almost entirely verbal, from one person to another (or a small group at a time), via the medium of air.

In other words, through a social medium.

I work at Mayo Clinic as manager of syndication and social media, but social media have been at work at Mayo long before I was even born. For more than a century, and even after the advent of mass media like TV and radio, word of mouth has been the most important source of information influencing preference for Mayo Clinic. It’s been all about people sharing their experiences as patients (or accompanying family members visiting Mayo) in a social context. In the equation above, S! stands for satisfaction, and as it is multiplied via sound waves through air, it leads to word-of-mouth. Putting it in a formula like that creates the illusion of scientific rigor, but it’s really pretty simple.

In considering the tools (as we will see in Thesis 2) social media are new, but in another sense they are just the way we as humans have always communicated.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blogs are new.

Social media aren’t.

Nailing 35 Theses to the Wall

As I mentioned yesterday, it was 492 years ago today that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. The official title was “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” and its viral spread led to the Protestant Reformation that has had seismic effects in world culture for nearly five centuries, even though more Americans associate October 31 with goblins and overdosing on high fructose corn syrup than with theological and cultural revolutions.

Today I created a new page on SMUG on which I have posted my 35 Theses, entitled “Disputation of Chancellor Lee Aase on the Power and Efficacy of Social Media.” Instead of nailing them to the physical community bulletin board as Luther did, I’m posting them on the wall of a virtual university. And while Luther’s theses unintentionally sparked a revolution, mine have the goal of sparking discussion and disputation about a revolution that is already well underway.

The video I’m embedding below highlights the changes taking place in what it calls a Social Media Revolution:

I’ve seen several videos of this genre, but one thing I appreciate about this one (as opposed to the “Shift Happens” series) is that it focuses on what has already happened (which is amazing enough) instead of projecting things like “By 2049 a $1,000 computer will exceed the computing capabilities of the human race.” I also like this recent video, Did You Know 4.0…which only makes one really outlandish extrapolation at the end, but in that it was at least quoting someone.

So while the videos above provide support for Thesis #4Social Media are the third millennium’s defining communications trend — my 35 theses are more about describing the revolution than causing it.

What I do hope to accomplish, though, is to help health care organizations (and other risk-averse businesses and groups) understand that the social media revolution isn’t a fad, that it will affect them and — most importantly — that it can be immensely beneficial if they look for ways to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in social technologies.

I look forward to writing posts over the next month or so that will amplify and illustrate many of these theses, and to having others refine and improve them.

And since I only started with 35, there’s plenty of room for you to suggest more. We’ve got a long way to go to match Luther’s 95.

Let’s discuss!