The Internet as social media: connectivity and immediacy

The Internet as social media: connectivity and immediacy (module 3, case)

Up to now our approach has been pretty conventional. We’ve offered some slightly provocative comments about how the Internet may be stirring the pot in some unusual ways, but mostly we’ve been looking at tools and the uses to which they are put in organizations — that is, as pretty much doing business as usual, both in terms of the course and the subject matter. But now, it’s time to come face-to-face with the actual information revolution — the things going on in the current information environment and society that just might result in something brand-new rather than just more of the same games played with fancier and more expensive toys. In this module, we begin to consider the Internet — the network of networks — as a social medium — a really new way of enabling human interaction in ways and on levels distinctly different from how we’ve done things up to now.

Think back if you will to Module 1 and Amy Blair’s review of information overload through the centuries. Clearly, human beings have coped with a lot of changes in information exchange and processing. But consider this also: was there any point in this long catalog up to now where our tools allowed one person to essentially destroy a highly regarded multibillion-dollar corporation in barely an afternoon of ill-advised commodity trading (remember Barings Bank)? Speed of information exchange, and perhaps even more important, speed of information regarding the consequences of those exchanges, has changed the game completely. The Treaty of Paris of 1814 that ended the US/UK War of 1812 contained an interesting provision regarding the end of the war — namely, that it would end at different times in different parts of the world — the next day in Paris, but not until some nine months later out in the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the most decisive battle of the war, in which the British failed to capture New Orleans from the Americans, took place well after the signature of the treaty of peace (although before the official end of the war in Louisiana, as set by the treaty). That was pretty much the way things worked up until rather late in the 20th century.

The Internet is, as we said, a game changer. Call of Duty 2: Black Ops isn’t just marbles or jump-rope played with a joystick; it’s an entirely different phenomenon. Likewise, the change to doing business in the Internet world — which is, let’s remember, barely over 15 years old — is analogous to moving from playing lawn bowls to playing neo-basketball within about 5 minutes — complicated by the fact that nobody’s bothered to explain the rules of neo-basketball to you, at least in part because they haven’t been made up yet. The Internet enables varieties of human behavior to move from unthinkable to common to boring to forgotten almost in hours, rather than the decades or centuries in which we used to measure social change. Moreover, and even more troubling to many people, these changes can take place not just quickly but often largely or entirely outside the realm of social control. Never underestimate the human capacity to stomp down on other people — we may yet succeed in returning this wild beast of an Internet to a nice safe cage presided over by tired old people — but at least for the time being, we live in an age of unprecedented freedom, both to succeed and to fail — or at least to make a horrendous fool of yourself in front of millions, alleviated only by the fact that nobody’s going to remember it for very long.

"Web 1.0" ruled until about 2000, emphasizing getting information out there. With the transition to "Web 2,0" came interactivity, and emphasis on transactions. "Web 3.0" seems to be approaching at breaknexk speed, although at the moment no one can agree of just what it’s supposed to be doing that’s new. But it’s going to happen. The open questions are who’s going to make it happen, and above all, who’s going to organize itr, control it, and profit from it. It could continue to be the techies and entrepreneurs — or it could just as easily be the big media conglomerates and the telecommunications monopolies. Several very different futures are at the moment equally possible.

Wherever there are wild beasts, there’s never been a shortage of people who believe that they can ride them and thus gain an advantage over other folks. The Internet is, of course, no exception. Some people are riding it all the way to Billionaire’s Row; some people are leaving their innards on the track. Social revolutions pretty much distribute costs and benefits randomly, at least in the early stages, and neither technical brilliance nor organizational skill nor even social position ensure that you can stay on the back of the beast long enough to benefit from it. The one thing that is clear is that if you’re not planning to try to ride the beast, you’d probably better get out of the ring, because it’s certainly going to try to ride all over you if you don’t. If you’re getting a little tired of all these beastly metaphors, I’ll spare you more of them — by now you’ve certainly gotten the point that what the Internet has done to individuals, to business, and to society in terms of connectivity, immediacy, and feedback is both something really new and something that we really don’t understand either what is or where it’s going.

In this module, we’ll look at how some new social media enabled by the Internet have radically altered the business world, at least some pieces of it, and think about how to get ready for the next rounds. The one thing that is clear asbout the evolution of the Internet is that barring the Immanentizing of the Eschaton, we will continue to see ever-newer and less predictable features and capabilities opened up by and within it. As Bette Davis warned us in the classic film All About Eve, "Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night!"


Required Readings

Carroll, D. (2009) United Breaks Guitars. Music video posted to Youtube. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from

Garfield, B. (2010) The Point of Twitter. Onthemedia from National Public radio. Transcript Retrieved November 15, 2010 from Audio version also available, same site.

Garfield, B. (2010) Interview with Eval Williams. Onthemedia from National Public radio. Transcript Retrieved November 15, 2010 from Audio version also available, same site.

Hanna, J. (2010) HBS Cases: United Breaks Guitars. Working Knowledge: Harvard Business School. November 29. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from