Of all the data on our evolving media landscape I've unearthed over the last year, one fact has struck me much more forcibly than any other. Over the last 12 months, across the world, social networking has overtaken face-to-face as the primary way that Internet users maintain their social circles.
Every year since 2006, UM's Global Wave series has tracked the social media habits of regular Internet users, that is people who have used the Internet today or yesterday, in over 30 countries. In answer to the question, "Approximately, how many people do you stay in contact with in your personal life through the following means..." the number of respondents replying "face-to-face" has remained fairly consistent at 38 people. But in the last results, social media moved from its previous position of 3rd place with 33 people and leapfrogged over both email and face-to-face, to take the pole position at 42 people.
One of the distinguishing features of social networking and social media in general, is that while all other forms of person-to-person contact are wholly based on either written or verbal communication, social media can also involve images, photographs and video. It is this innovation in the variety of social media content that truly heralds a new era of media literacy.
We can see this burgeoning shift in media literacy, for example, in blogs. From Wave Three in 2008 to Wave Four in 2009, the number of respondents in the USA who had created a blog remained constant at a steady 22 percent across both years. Yet over the same time, the proportion of bloggers who uploaded music as part of their blogs boomed by 154 percent, photos leapt by 139 percent, widgets 103 percent and video 98 percent.
Yet the rise of social media literacy is much more than just directly including images and graphics in the way we communicate. It is tangibly different from every other form of media literacy the world has witnessed. Every previous shift in mass media literacy came about in a distinctly different way.
While the origin of mass media is often cited as the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, the truth is books didn't become a mass media reality until four hundred years later. New Hampshire was the first u.s. state to pass a law permitting local taxes to support public libraries in 1849. Similarly, Britain passed the Public Libraries Act in 1850. As a social phenomenon by the mid-to-late 19th Century, it was common for middle class Victorian homes to have book readings as a family or larger group. The book was often read in a social group as a form of entertainment.
Driven by scarcity, books were typically shared, consumed and enjoyed together as a social group.
The USA and Europe saw the advent of radio broadcasting in the 1920s but wireless sets were simply too expensive to have as an individual personal device. Similar to books, they were listened together as a family or household group. Later in the 1950s and '60s, TV also followed a similar household or group consumption pattern - people watched the I Love Lucy show together as a family or social group.
It was only later that each medium became so widespread that the individual typically consumed them alone. Arguably, the exception to the rule is cinema, which is still often primarily regarded as a group or couple's activity.
Online social media completely upends this trend in mass media evolution. It is the first medium consumed or created first by the individual to be then subsequently consumed by the social group. Paradoxically, one of the great global strengths of social media is in its ability for the single individual to reach out covertly to others at large. In India, for example, an observed cultural reason why teenage girls or young adult females will use social networking is that they can reach out to their peers without the direct supervision of their parents. Social media has the potential to liberate the individual in other parts of the world in a way we can only dream about in the States.
The Internet, in global commercial terms, is just about 15 years old. Even so, we can already substantiate its transformation of media literacy and the fundamental way we socialize across the entire world. Imagine what it'll be like in a further 15.