When I started my digital agency back in 1996, I constantly ran into critics who called the Web "The CB radio of the 90?s." Eventually, as the web demonstrated it was more than just a flash in the pan, time has proven those critics wrong. But, I'm wondering where those same critics are today who would claim Social Media is the "CB radio of this decade?"
I ask because, unlike the criticism of the web, this time they could be right!
Friends in the Social Media universe know me as Triveraguy (my profile name on Twitter). But, back in the 70?s, another Social Media "community" knew me as Grouchy Bear.
The medium was CB, or "citizen's band" radio. The radios themselves had both a receive and transmit function, allowing anyone to engage in short blast broadcast conversations with other people who also had one. Originally used almost exclusively by the over-the-road truck driving community, it spread to include just regular folks, some using mobile devices, others using desktop units. The general communication happened on channel 19, where a constant cacophony of messages filled the airwaves… everything from truck drivers warning of speed traps or drunk drivers, stalled motorists asking for assistance, truck stops inviting drivers to their business or regular people just talking about such inane topics as where they were (your "10-20?) and what they were doing. As groups of friends and followers formed, other sideband channels became the gathering places for those communities. "Lower Channel 15? was the hangout for me, Bird Lady, Lannon Rich and at least a dozen others whose handles I've long forgotten.
The CB community used its own nomenclature…an almost secret code language…that longtimers helped create, and caused newbies to have to monitor for awhile before they dared to jump in and actively participate.
Community "leaders" emerged who organized meetups to allow all these people who had never met each other face to face to see the other folks behind the handles. Connections were made, and relationships were built. I even met a great guy I ended up hiring and we are friends to this day.
Non CBers just thought we were all nuts, but we were convinced everyone needed to be using CB radio. And our nearly evangelistic fervor drove our "non-enlightened" friends, neighbors and relatives crazy. But then CB radio started to show up in the consciousness of mainstream America. The movie "Smokey and The Bandit" hit the theaters and was a huge hit. C.W. McCall's song "Convoy" made the top of the charts and produced a movie of the same name. And there were the popular TV shows like "Movin' On" and "The Dukes of Hazzard" that glorified the whole CB lifestyle. We had arrived, and we knew it would only be a matter of time before we took over the world.
If you're one of us who are active in Social Media, I'm sure you see the stunning parallels. The reason I "get" Social Media is because, for me it really is just another stop in a series of subcultures that began with the hippie subculture of the 60?s and early 70?s, and after the CB radio adventure, went on to other religious, business and technological subcultures and has now culminated in Social Media. If you've ever been a part of a large multi-level marketing, religious or hobby-based subculture, you know exactly what I'm talking about when I say every one of them has so many of the same characteristics as Social Media, it's scary.
But all good things come to an end. In rare cases, subcultures grow and become so mainstream that they stop being subcultures and become part of the fabric of the culture at large. Others sink into insignificance and obscurity. Often it's because people move on with their lives. Sometimes, the technology that makes it possible gets trumped by something new. Frequently the whole subculture simultaneously has a "what were we thinking?" epiphany and it dies from mass exodus.
Universal acceptance for the CB subculture never materialized. It ended up being just another fad that exploded for a time, but eventually returned to its roots, still being used to this day, but almost solely by truckers.
So what ultimately happens to the Social Media subculture? Its fans believe Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and all the others will be like the Web and leapfrog into mass acceptance and live happily ever after. But, we've already seen MySpace begin to lose its luster. While nearly half of all Americans have a Facebook profile, Twitter's penetration is still significantly smaller, and according to Forrester Research, only 1% use check-in services regularly. With a business impact that's tinier than its zealots are willing to admit, its insider lingo, club-like characteristics, evangelistic fervor and the fact that in most markets, the Social Media community is only large enough to support the one or two businesses that are trotted out by the media as the "examples of success," the jury may still be out.
You could always tell a CBer by the long antenna on his car, truck or house. One of our clients told us the other day that she could tell us Twitter people because of the antennae that we have growing out of our own heads!
So all irrational exuberance aside, what do you think history predicts is next on the horizon for Social Media? Is Social Media headed for a "10-7" or will the future be "clean and green with the shiny side up and the greasy side down?"