Social Media: The Big Picture

07/22/2011 06:29 pm ET | Updated Sep 21, 2011

Life in the economically beleaguered West is changing fast. We are on the go and our economy is not. New technologies add great new opportunities. Macro headwinds mean more effort to get less far. Millions struggle to get and keep work, assets and stay ahead of responsibilities. We notice the disruptions to our lives and often take fast-evolving new technologies for granted.

Just as movies emerged in the Great Depression, social and mobile networking/media are emerging in the Great Recession. Sound, remote sound, came to America with the radio in the 1920s. Movies with sound arrived in the 1930s. The film industry revolutionized entertainment by bringing the screen to life with sound.

Social media has brought the remote self to entertainment. Our assertions, friends, tastes and preferences are actively inserted into our interaction. This is what social media brings, it brings us into our entertainment product. Our thoughts, writings, pictures, videos and personalities are networked, shared and profiled. Social networks have fast become the leading edge of entertainment/infotainment. Cost saving, mass communication technologies have a long history of emerging during tough economic times. Cheap/free escapes from stress and new personal powers are in high demand during hard times.

Radio emerged during the great panics and economic crises of the first decade of the 20th Century. In the spring of 1909, in San Jose Calif., Charles Herrold started one of America's first radio stations. Radio began taking root in the shadow of the recession of 1910 to 1912. Thus, the Bay Area produced the technology spark that helped build the foundation for radio's popularity. The real surge in radio's popularity, in the U.S. and globally, took place across the 1920s. The early 1920s were marred by two prolonged recessions. Large and disruptive downturns nurture transformative new technologies. There is even a precedent for this happening in Silicon Valley.

Counter-intuitively, new technologies often rise and prosper in difficult times. Mass communication technologies in particular seem to shine brightly during dark hours. The "golden age of Hollywood" raged from 1928-1947. This period includes the depths of the Great Depression. Americans escaped depression in new movie theaters that offered sound. Waves of new technologies transformed film in a process that continues today with mobile streaming video. Great crowds of movie goers rewarded innovation despite, maybe because of, the times.

Losing yourself in the new media, film with sound, proved seductive. Hollywood films became the delivery medium for newsreels, attitudes toward cars, cigarettes and personal relationships. Great fortunes were made, social attitudes shifted and advertising evolved. Nimble early investors realized that this new medium was remaking life.

Social media is emerging as the great technology of the Great Recession. Like previous great technologies of previous great disruptions, it is oft derided. The link between disruptive technologies and disrupted economies remains poorly understood.

Facebook is a child of the tech wreck of 2001. Social networking and grew up in the ashes of the latest great San Francisco asset fire. Nearly a billion people, across the nations of the world, are finding solace, entertainment and expression in the social network. Inserting each of our selves into entertainment and information is proving as seductive as sound did in the golden age of Hollywood. The young, the demographically worst impacted by the recessions of 2001 and 2008-2009, have led the way. Social networking effectively injects the self into advertisement, games, movies, television, radio and commerce. Social media allows individuals and groups to insert themselves into existing and new mass media.

Weak labor markets, pricey transportation and pessimism about the economic future have positively correlated with rising usage and time investment in Facebook and other social media. The Great Depression provided Hollywood with massive crowds; long bread lines and long movie lines defined the age. The talking picture provided escape.

Weak labor markets, stale offerings from traditional media outlets and the desire for greater engagement are generating today's social media crowds. Inexpensive web access and smart mobile phones create capability. Facebook has drawn a movie line 750 million people long. Today's deal and freebie hunters are on-line not on a line. Everything old is new again and it is new again inside social media.

We are at a global pivot point. The vast middle in the developed world is income-constrained. The developing world is well populated and for the first time in modern history, populated with people who have internet access. Like the Great Depression crowds that packed early movie theaters, the vast crowds flocking into social media are easily and often dismissed. Today, we see many of the same arguments that were deployed against radio and film in the 1920s and 1930s. Some see social media as a passing fad, a children's toy.

The vast sums and social power rolling into leading firms offer a powerful refutation. As information gathers, it is becoming increasingly clear that social media is today's talking picture. Now the audience talks, not the screen. The Great Recession is launching the social network much the way the Great Depression launched the talking picture. Self is the new sound.