Today, we are on the verge of a massive shift in the way we communicate and inspire action. Social media is creating a new kind of communications fluidity, a fully immersive experience enabling conversations to be hijacked in ways unimaginable in decades past.
Up until the 1980s, totalitarian governments, superpowers, media cartels, and leading brands had dominant control over national and even global dialogues because of superior resources and a monopoly over communications channels. A message could be easily disseminated through one-way communications processes without any competition from an opposing product or viewpoint.
By the 1990s, computer power and the Internet were inundating people with more information than ever before, ending communications monopolies and monologues. Communications strategists quickly switched to two-way communications processes and began relying on dialogues with audience segments (about their opinions, feelings, needs, and wants as well as the benefits or barriers they perceived to change) to identify ways to influence and motivate them.
Today, a self-directed communications swarm flowing in infinite directions and loops—but in a synchronized way—is emerging as a new communications paradigm.
Thanks to Web 2.0, ideas are now swarming in patterns similar to bees. Bees use their “humming” to instinctively move in coordinated synchronous swarms when they are building a new nest or hive. These self-organized swarms use a bottom-up approach where very simple interactions between individuals develop into complex group movements.
Mobile technology combined with real-time web applications, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, creates a buzz similar to the humming of these swarms. This buzz empowers people to align around a common interest, become inspired, and take action—nearly instantaneously and in unison without prior planning or forethought.
Here’s a telling quote out of an article on Twitter’s role in the Bangkok conflict in The Globe and Mail:
Never before has a social media website played the kind of role in a conflict that Twitter has played in Thailand’s nine-week-old anti-government uprising, keeping people informed even as it amplified the hate on both sides of the country’s divide.
Some say Twitter—or rather its users—may have even saved lives as fighting consumed the streets of Bangkok.
More clearly, it was used by propagandists on both sides to get their message out, and by ordinary Thais to express their frustrations at the situation and to warn each other about which areas of Bangkok to avoid as the city descended into urban warfare.
With many websites censored and Thailand’s traditional media deeply divided into pro- and anti-government camps, it arguably became the only forum where you could get a clear picture of what was really going on.
The use of communications swarms is only in its infancy, and it will be fascinating to watch it evolve. Its powerful impact appears to be both beneficial and destructive. Swarms have been used to organize peaceful political rallies, pressure companies to change their policies, report election fraud, and orchestrate disaster relief services. But as The Globe and Mail article points out, social media’s cloak of near-anonymity can lead to vitriolic, often hateful, speech and actions:
Each hateful comment seemed to provoke an even nastier response, and by the time the nine-week-old protest came to an end, each side was cheering acts of violence against the other.
Indeed, Web 2.0 is ushering in an exciting—but sometimes scary—new communications order. Since we can’t bury our heads in the sand and stop technological progess, our only choice is to embrace the chaos and prepare to adapt along with it.
What do you think? Are you tracking or joining swarms? Are you excited or scared? Let us hear from you.