We are experiencing the sixth great communication transformation brought about by new technology. Each transformation dramatically changed our perception of our world, and each was initially misunderstood. With each transformation, people made the same mistake. They looked at the new medium, and applied their ways of working with existing media to the new medium.
The first transformation was the invention of the alphabet, roughly 3500 years ago, which led to writing. This profoundly changed communication as for the first time, there were permanent records of information. Prior to the alphabet, everything was spoken and the only record of transactions was memory and good faith. It also made people much more aware of what they were saying, and made people much more aware of what they said. When people first used the alphabet, they wrote as if they were speaking to a person or audience. For example legal documents often started with “Oh! all ye who have heard this…” and often ended with “Goodbye!”. The alphabet was met with scorn from many leading thinkers of the time. Plato and Socrates (who refused to write anything down) lamented that once people could write, they wouldn’t bother to remember anything.
The second transformation was the invention of the printing press. The printing press made replication and dissemination of data possible, leading to the Renaissance, the Reformation and the birth of science. Print also made documentation stable as people could trust that what they were looking at was the same as what other people were looking at. The printing press also brought something new – for the first time, people were faced with too much information. This prospect led many to declare that print would lead to disorder in society. People were scared at the prospect of the printing press. They were worried that anything they wrote down could be copied, and copied, and could spread across the world.
The third transformation was the invention of the telegraph, roughly 150 years ago, which allowed people to communicate with people thousands of miles away, in close to real-time. This was a revelation. Information that just two years earlier had taken days to arrive at its destination could now be there in seconds. The telegraph also changed the understanding of what a message contained. Prior to the telegraph, a message was always a physical object. The telegraph forced people to think about a message as an abstract concept and it was also misunderstood. The telegraph led people to believe that the death of newspapers was imminent, as the telegraph would contradict their false claims as fast as they were published.
The fourth was the telephone, which allowed people to talk with others no matter where they were in the world, but that’s not how people first thought of it. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell traveled across the country proclaiming that his new invention was a new broadcast device, for broadcasting music and sermons. Businesses, when considering the telephone alongside the telegraph, dismissed it as a toy, because it did not leave a permanent record of conversations, and because it appealed to emotions rather than the letters and numbers of the telegraph.
The pattern of misunderstanding continued. The first television shows (and the fifth transformation) were screenings of plays, and the first television ads were a single shot of a man reading out a radio ad script.
We’re seeing the same pattern with the sixth transformation – the web - and it’s being exacerbated with the shift to the social web. Remember that the web is in it’s infancy, and the social web we’re seeing emerge now will simply be the web in a short number of years. The web is not a broadcast medium, it’s not a platform for interrupting people. It’s an interactive medium. In fact, the social web is very close to offline interaction. You wouldn’t interrupt people in the middle of a telephone conversation with an ad, so why do the same thing on Facebook? If you saw two people having an intimate chat at a party, you wouldn’t go over and suddenly interrupt them, to tell them something that is not related to their conversation. The social web requires marketers to build relationships with customers. This requires one to one attention. It requires responding to every post or comment that people leave you. More importantly, people are looking for short term wins on a platform built for long term relationships. Relationships take time, and are formed from many sequential interactions. Too many marketers are currently approaching Facebook by trying to close on the first date. And even if they succeed, it’s unlikely to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
What you know about advertising on TV, or in print, does not apply on Facebook. It’s a completely new, and transformational medium. It took our ancestors many years, at times decades, to understand the new technology that faced them. Let’s not make the same mistake. Don’t apply how you work with existing media to a new transformational medium. Think about the properties of the medium, and figure out the new ways of working that will be required: Patience, time, one-to-one attention.
// This post was inspired by the book I’m currently reading: The Information. //
Disclaimer: As always, the thoughts here are my own and not those of my employer.