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Is social media new?

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23 February 2010
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The simple answer is no. Social media is not new.

In 1892 in Budapest, a certain Tividar Puskas launched an exciting new service that used telephones to deliver radio programs to an audience. Initially he had 60 subscribers. Puskas thought telephones would make a great way to distribute information and entertainment, i.e. a great broadcast medium.

A stentor reading the day's news to 6200 subscribers - An image depicting the stentor of Telefon Hirmondó - April 1901

It was not to be. His service did manage to garner 15,000 subscribers by 1907, but died because we found a use for phones that is vastly more lucrative and valuable – namely talking to each other. One-to-one communication.

Since then one-to-one telephony has become one of the biggest industries around. The world’s largest telephone company AT&T is still much larger than Microsoft, Times Warner, or Google in terms of revenue. And there are much more telcos than there are large internet portals or entertainment companies.

But well before the telephone and the telegraph we already had forms of media that were interactive, conversational, one-to-one.

The town square, where people could meet and exchange information, was an old form of social interaction. The town hall speech, its one-to-many equivalent, was ‘broadcast’.

We have had one-to-one letters for hundreds of years, and more recently we had pamphlets (today’s flyers) through which to ‘broadcast’ our messages.

So what is different now? According to Clay Shirky it’s the technological changes of recent that have accelerated social interaction. Things that used to be hard to coordinate because they took time and were expensive to organise have become easier to do.

In other words, social media is not new, but what is new is that social technologies have lowered the cost and the barriers for entry. Now, everybody can be a media outlet.

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