It’s that time of the year when we are anxiously waiting for the announcement of Time’s Person of the Year – the individual (or organization, thing, etc.) judged by the magazine’s editors to have most influenced the world over the past 12 months.
The selection for 2010 was Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the leading online social network Facebook. Only four years ago, “You” were selected Time’s 2006 Person of the Year. In both cases, the selection recognizes the transformational effects of what was known more widely then as Web 2.0 and more recently as social media.
“You” in 2006
At the turn of the last millennium, in the aftermath of the dotcom crash, many academic researchers were busy drawing lessons from the demise of the dotcoms, issuing calls for a return to business fundamentals, and even recasting the future of e-commerce. They apparently failed to notice that amidst the rubble of the dotcom crash, Internet-based e-commerce continues to rise at double-digit rates, as measured by online retail sales and advertising revenues (after a brief decline in the latter case). A few dotcoms (among them were Google, eBay and Amazon) had not only survived the crash but also prospered. Meanwhile, a new crop of dotcom ventures (among them were YouTube, MySpace, Orkut, Wikipedia, Hi5, and Facebook) was once again mushrooming. Many had become leading Web destinations and household names.
For some practitioners, these developments did not go unnoticed. In 2004, during a brain-storming session between O’Reilly Media and MediaLive International for a potential future conference about the Web, it was noted that the Web was still getting more important than ever despite the dotcom crash a few years earlier. The term Web 2.0 was coined to capture the essence of what seemed to be some kind of turning point for the Web. Its “2.0” designation does not imply a new version of some old software applications. Rather, it underlines a very different Web. The earlier Web (or Web 1.0, if you will) was structurally hierarchical, ruled by webmasters and offered static websites that were broadcasted and distributed mostly through hypertext links. By contrast, Web 2.0 is characterized by open communication, decentralization of authority and freedom to share and re-use content. It allows individuals to publish, collaborate and share experiences with other like-minded individuals and groups on a scale never seen before, thus bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter.
Who are those individuals making such contributions? The answer is “You”. By creating Facebook profiles, building Second Life avatars, recording podcasts, blogging about political candidates, social causes or simply cooking recipes, connecting with one another, and/or spreading the viral messages, “You” (or more precisely, tens of millions of people like you) have wrested power from the few (e.g., newspaper editors, broadcasters, marketers and advertisers). In the process, you have not only changed the world; you have also changed the way the world changes. It did not take very long for this transformation to become well recognized. In December 2006, Time selected “You” as its Person of the Year “for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game”.
Him (Mark Zuckerberg) in 2010
The proliferation of content-centric Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, podcasts, and video and video sharing sites once again brings to the forefront the notion of “Content is King”. This notion went back at least as far as 1996 when Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wrote in an online column that “content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet”. But things did not out quite well as often touted. Content in the Web1.0 era was for the most part commercially generated content (CDC), which was too expensive to create and update frequently, and being non-engaging with consumers, also ineffective in relationship building (read my other blog post “Is [Commercially Developed] Content King?“). Content in the Web 2.0 era, by contrast, has increasingly been user-generated content (UGC), from blog posts and comments on them, entries on Wikipedia, videos on YouTube, profiles on Facebook, to virtual worlds and avatars on SecondLife. More than just content pieces, these are vehicles for users to share ideas, contribute knowledge, collaborate on projects, support common causes, build communities, or simply connect with each other. Web 2.0 tools are therefore as much about connectivity and collaboration as about content generation. They are thus social media. As media, they offer the means or instruments for delivering content of one kind or another (e.g., news, information, ads or entertainment). Being social, they help improve our ability to connect, communicate, and collaborate (read my other blog post “Social Media: More ‘Social’ than ‘Media’“).
It is the ability to connect that makes content generation more powerful and collaboration feasible. Blogs can be powerful when they are commented and hyperlinked, potentially turning themselves into running conversations and passionate debates that can mobilize the mass. Tweets can be powerful despite their 140-character limits. They can reach out to a large number of followers and keep them updated in real-time. Wikis can be powerful, as Wikipedia has amply demonstrated, thanks to their ability to harness the collective efforts and intelligence of the mass on a scale not possible until recent years. Still no social media tools to date can match the power to connect offered by online social networks (OSNs) such as Facebook. Its user population had crossed the 500 million mark in July 2010, placing it third in size behind only China and India. Half of its users log in on a daily basis. Each user has an average of 130 friends and creates 90 pieces of content a month. For “connecting more than half a billion people and mapping the social relations among them; for creating a new system of exchanging information; and for changing how we all live our lives”, Time selected Facebook founder as its 2010 Person of the Year.