The social role of the internet Part I: the origins of web 2.0 and social media

January 15, 2008

Communication as a universal human need

The unexpected speed with which the internet was adopted in the West is an excellent example of how unaware we often are of the future impact and potential of our inventions, in this case, due to a limited understanding of the human need for communication.

The ability to communicate any form of content (audio, video, writing etc) to any number of people one wishes is a universal human need. One example is that of Samuel Morse, who was also a famous portrait artist in the U.S.

“While Morse was working on a portrait of General Lafayette in Washington, his wife, who lived about 500 kilometers away, grew ill and died. But it took seven days for the news to reach him. In his grief and remorse, he began to wonder if it were possible to erase barriers of time and space, so that no one would be unable to reach a loved one in time of need. Pursuing this thought, he came to discover how to use electricity to convey messages, and so he invented the telegraph and, indirectly, the ITU.” [1]

Mobile phones would for the same reasons have been indispensable for buffalo-hunting Indians or for ancient Greeks in the Battle of Marathon.

Comparing the internet with traditional media

“We know telephones are for talking with people, televisions are for watching programs, and highways are for driving. So what’s the web for?” [2]

What can the internet do? Better: What can people do with the internet? To answer this question and examine the social adoption and cultural impact of the internet it is helpful to compare it with its pre-existing competitors.

The media that precede the internet can be classified for our purposes as one-way (cinema, TV, radio, print) and two-way (speech, post, telephone).Mass media have up to the end of the 20th century always been one-way[3] given that there was no interactive mass medium available.

It is incorrect to talk about the internet as a single medium as it can function as both  any of the old media (phone, post, TV etc) and a number of ever-evolving new media platforms (Blogs, email, social networks, wiki, forums etc). Though they are different kind of media, each with its own unique characteristics, there are certain characteristics they share.

1.    Media access


  • Old media: Handful of broadcasters. Everyday people have no ownership\access to the mass media as the cost\skill barriers involved are unsurpassable [3].
  • Internet media: Audience as broadcasters. Be they one-to-many or many-to-many, new media due to their minimal access requirements (cost\skills\time) allow ordinary people to easily participate as owners\publishers of their own media outlets. Millions of once-off, part- or full time broadcasters.


  • Old media: Uniform content and centralised filtering of content. Same message sent to everybody. Due to high costs of content production and media distribution only the content that addresses the needs of the head rather than the tail of demand is broadcast. As the mass-market appeal becomes every media outlets priority, uniform messages end up homogenizing society.
  • Internet media: The long tail of content. No matter how idiosyncratic, niche, controversial or even perverse your message is there will be someone who will be interested. Given the low price tag and knowledge barrier involved in producing and distributing content it is cost-effective to do so. Given the passion of most everyday new media publishers in the topic they discuss it is worthwhile to do so.

2.    Direction of communication

     Publisher – Audience

  • Old media: One-way communication. The publisher’s monologue.
  • Internet media: Two-way, interactive communication between the publisher and the audience.

      Audience Community

  • Old media: Isolated viewers with no means to identify each others as receivers of the same message and therefore of their common point of reference, shared interests etc. No means to achieve a self-awareness\consciousness of the audience community.
  • Internet media: The option to see and interact with other viewers of the same content, creates an audience that instead of consisting of isolated and passive viewers constitutes an active, self-conscious community. This feature is present in most Web 2.0 applications.

3.       Content distribution

  • Old media: Fleeting interruption.
  • Internet: Permanent – Targeted. Even in cases of one-to-many online mass media such as blogs, video sharing etc they are unobtrusive and targeted, given that they are accessible only after one searches for them, are recommended by a friend, or responds to signpoists that alert him/her of their existence. The content posted in the internet’s media channels be it a blog, YouTube, FlickR, Social networks etc is permanent and therefore accessible at any time.

What appears in retrospect as an incredible oversight – that no one anticipated that everyday people desired to become media publishers\content creators and that as soon as they would be given low-cost, low-skill, access to mass media they would go nuts – is nothing more than proof of our unconsciousness of

  • the future impact and potential of our inventions.
  • the human needs for communication.

Signs of this desire before the internet: phone in on talk radio, game shows, pirate radio stations. 

[1] Al Gore, Buenos Aires Speech, International Telecommunications Union, 21 March 1994

[2] Locke et al The Cluetrain Manifesto p.39[3] With the exception of pirate radio stations, the only medium available to everyday people before the Web 2.0 age was the post, which was too expensive as a one-to-many mass medium and the phone, for which teleconferencing, as a many-to-many medium, was only a later development.

2 Responses to “The social role of the internet Part I: the origins of web 2.0 and social media”

  1. […] by contrasting their features with traditional media. If you have the time, check it out here.Is the name ‘social media’ appropriate if all media are social?From this point of view the name […]

  2. […] 15, 2008 Having looked at the revolutionary characteristics all digital media share in ‘The social role of the internet Part I: the origins of web 2.0 and social media‘, the next couple of posts will focus on each digital medium’s unique characteristics. […]

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