The history of social media can be understood as a gradual progression in the interconnectedness of human society. We can trace an arc back through millennia of technological process - from our ancestor's first fractured scribblings in their torchlit passages, to the invention of vellum and parchment, and then to the first significant cataclysm in the history of technology, the arrival of the printing press and the subsequent widespread distribution of literature.
The arrival of a printing press in a European city may have been the late-medieval equivalent of dropping a thermonuclear bomb. More than anything, bibles being printed in local languages rather than latin began the process of eroding the Catholic church's miserly stranglehold on the cultural capital of the time. And nobody alive at that time could have predicted the consequences of this dawning of the first information age - 500 years of religious infighting, a death toll that probably stands in the billions, and societal fractures with open wounds persisting to this day.
The next advance in social media didn't come until the telegram, ushering in the second information age. A global communications web of underseas cables connected the Victorian world, a sort of steampunk internet with morse code operators and typists instead of servers. This work preceded the global telephone network, which eventually became the host for our fresh-faced hero, the proto-internet in the 1980s, being hacked together over this existing infrastructure through modems and dial-ups.
It's clear from this analysis of history that we've seen a gradual progress in total human interconnectedness over time, culminating finally in today's present state of affairs. The smartphone is the universal human device. 4 and a half billion internet users, and nearly universal access to the world's information - great firewalls not withstanding. From cave paintings to black mirrors, the medium has mutated beyond recognition, but the underlying human need to connect with others remains the same.
We've reached peak social
Today, for the first time in history, the arc is beginning to bend the other way. It looks like, after all this, our destiny may not be to institute a worldwide Borg hivemind (sorry Sam Harris). Even despite the valiant efforts of today's social media luddites - shunning the internet, living in their off-the-grid log cabins, writing articles on typewriters and receiving all their contact with the outside world by fucking carrier pigeon or something like this pillock - the times are a' changing of their own accord.
The monolithic open-graph social networks are fracturing along the fault lines laid down in 2016 EU referendum and US presidential elections. In China, group chats of no more than 100 people have become the primary arena for commerce, concierge and communication. For everything from cars to bric-a-brac, people are flocking to hyper-local, invite-only Facebook "For Sale or Swap" groups. It isn't even possible to get through a breakfast news programme without snorting tea due to the constant drip-feed of drama the UK press receive from the private MPs WhatsApp group.
The trends are clear, even Lord Zuckerberg is on board - "people increasingly ... want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room". This, the chief private beneficiary of the world's mass migration to open social networks, becoming an advocate for "private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups".
Zuck is so keen to fly the flag for this new era of hyper-relevance because it dovetails so neatly into his business model. So far, the company has made its billions by flogging pockets of algorithmically determined relevance to advertisers amongst Facebook's otherwise maelstrom shitstorm of irrelevance. After all, Facebook's chief product, human eyeballs, are only there voluntarily (for now). If they leave en-masse for tailored groups and "private spaces" in search of relevance, which they have been doing, by the way, Zuck will see the foundations of his company start to evaporate from underneath him. Facebook's pull is only there as long as it's relevant to its users.
Surviving the Groupocalypse
As marketers, we owe it to our clients to keep our ears to the ground when such seismic changes are happening in our own backyards. The first rumblings of the coming groupocalypse in my niche came when we noticed that buying behaviour was starting to change among our customers. Rather than hit up the large online classified ad marketplaces first, they were going to their local for-sale-or-swap group on Facebook. So we were losing sales because we weren't advertising in those spaces.
But other changes seem to be afoot, too. We've noticed that we get a much higher engagement rate with customers when we contact them via WhatsApp, rather than making phone calls. Perhaps consumers have been trained to avoid answering phone calls by years of PPI marketing, I don't know, but when we reach out on WhatsApp, use personable language and emojis, and send videos and images, our customers love it.
WhatsApp is great because as a brand, you're right there on the customer's phone, next to their friends and family. It starts to help you to build a great rapport and alters the sales experience of the customer in a very positive way.
A field guide for the new normal
- Go to where your customers are, seek out their spaces and engage with them on a personal level
- Embrace new methods of communication. Call centres are so 20th century, man. I have recurring fantasies of a completely silent WhatsApp-only contact centre, with an army of advisors typing away. You may already have live chat enabled on your website, but get ready for instant messaging to disrupt your usual sales funnel.
- Conversational commerce is the new order of business. Give it a year or two and you may even have a handy AI assistant by your side in this.
Thanks for reading
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