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Strangled By the Telephone Wire: The Medium, The Message

Despite what many social media gurus want to preach, social media culture is still being defined. The rules and best practices are still being worked out by its users.

We as a social media culture haven’t completely defined the new norm, but we are well on our way. With that said, I thought it would make sense to revisit a book I read in college: When Old Technologies Were New by Carolyn Marvin.

In this book, Marvin looks at the cultural impact, social breakdown, and the rebuilding of social norms brought on by the inventions of electricity and the telephone. I didn’t want reread the entire book –come on, I’ve only got a week left of my Netflix free trial– so I decided to read just one chapter I thought was most relevant to our current state of communication … it’s about the telephone.

The telephone, like all new technologies, did not find its way into every home overnight.

Also the necessary improvements to the technology, the laws (wiretapping, privacy), the new defined social norms, or the cultural impact took decades to stabilize. One one end of the spectrum of cultural impact was Fort Wayne, IN, patent attorney Judge Robert S. Taylor who said the telephone created an “epoch of neighborship without propinquity.”

On the other end was an article written in American Electrician who said “We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” … in 1897, roughly around the time Mark Zuckerberg’s great-great-grandfather was wondering if William McKinley was going to make a better President than Grover Cleveland.

Let the comment fight begin!

Let the comment fight begin!

“Reliable cues for anchoring others to a social framework where familiar rules of transaction were organized around the relative status of the participants were subject to the tricks of concealment that new media made possible. Lower classes could crash barriers otherwise closed to them, and privileged classes could go slumming unobserved.” (Marvin, p. 86)

The barriers of social distance are continuously broken. For example, I technically caaaan reach Oprah by telephone or mail, I could also just tweet at her. One in a million chance she reads it, but nevertheless the communication barrier is nearly non-existent. The means of creating social currency are further eroded: not only am I able to communicate up the social ladder, but the opportunity for my voice to reach thousands or millions and actually move up the social ladder is present. Many non-celebrities have thousands of followers on Twitter because they offer humorous, thoughtful or engaging content.

Communication technology, by its very essence, brings together people who are not spatially close–which by itself can be kind of intimidating if not outright terrifying. Popular culture has time and time again assigned communication technology to power to act as gateways to other dimensions and the harbingers of evil, e.g. Poltergeist, The Ring, White Noise, One Missed Call or When A Stranger Calls.

...or the inevitable gritty remake

…or the inevitable gritty remake

This evolving social pathway may be scary as you try to manage your brand. The general public feels free, if not obligated, to tell the world about any positive or negative opinions they have. Marvin writes of New York Governor Chauncey Depew, who was terrorized by constituents who felt it was their right to call about any and all things they read in the newspaper (p. 66).

The difference between the telephone and today’s social media outlets is that today there isn’t a direct call to a Governor, CEO, or President: it’s a loudspeaker shouting a message to the masses that has to be actively monitored in order to make adjustments and respond. The goal of a social media management team shouldn’t be to affect change by shouting at target markets, but to embrace the open platform and see how it can work for you to make your product and customer relationships better. We as a culture have been here before and will be here again.

In the meantime let’s all go tweet at Oprah.

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