The brave new reality: We are all broadcasters now
Whilst Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wasn't the first to understand the power of 'community' in the online world, what he did was package it in a way that would appeal to the greatest number of people.
In so doing, he and his quietly introduced 'news feeds' of a few years back ensured that all those who embraced the phenomenon became instant broadcasters.
The impact on traditional broadcasting and in particular publishing could not have been profound.
Just when Rupert Murdoch finally thought his investment in incumbent social network MySpace was going to reap the rewards he had been banking on, an audacious new player bolted out of college dorms and onto an unsuspecting – and all-embracing public.
While recent Facebook investors are now thinking better of it, the fact remains that the social network has fundamentally changed the way many of us communicate.
Ironically, the message that Murdoch and traditional media players are quickly coming to grips with is an equally fundamental and frightening one.
That message is that many people are far more interested in their friends' news than that offered by the world's best journalists and their employers.
As a result, consumers are switching off their televisions and radios and unsubscribing from print journals faster than an impending deadline.
An unprecedented communications medium
What I find most fascinating about these developments is that social networking is unlike any medium before it.
Most of the developments that have emerged over the past few decades have a natural predecessor – albeit one that's been turbo boosted.
For example, email was preceded by ordinary mail and later fax. Search engines are a kind of virtual librarian. Email newsletters were electronic versions of their printed predecessors and so on.
So, in the main, technology had provided new ways of doing old things.
But this is where social media differs.
New age CB radio?
Social media is not like anything before it. Never before have we been able to communicate with many people simultaneously and have them respond in real time. It simply hasn't been done – at least not without millions of dollars' worth of technology and licences.
The closest thing I can think of is that relic from the 70s, CB (citizen band) radio.
I remember being fascinated by the prospect of communicating with anyone within range who could be bothered listening.
But relatively few could be bothered forking out for the equipment required to reach a wide enough audience. And if your 'good buddy' was really important to you, you'd get on the phone to them.
What's more, it required your audience to be in 'switched on' at the time you are broadcasting, unlike the 'on demand' nature of social networking.
Despite flirting briefly with a broader consumer audience, it soon retreated to the truckie and traveller community from whence it came.
Party every day
Many compare social networking to being at a party with all your friends. The difference is that all your friends can hear your every word and can put in their two bob's (showing my age) worth right back at you.
Unfortunately, few social networkers grasp the complexity of the medium and the ramifications of broadcasting personal information about themselves and their friends.
Few 'networkers' haven't got someone's nose out of joint because of a poorly considered post about pretty much anything at all. No matter how innocent.
Now these developments are creating a quandary for small business operators.
Too hot to touch
The vast majority are so overwhelmed by social networking that they have done nothing at all, as the statistics indicate.
Whilst that strategy keeps them out of immediate harm's way, it also runs the risk of losing touch with a growing market, not to mention the lost opportunity of harnessing what can be very low cost marketing.
But as many retailers have found, doing nothing may well allow competitors to snap up their customers faster than they can say 'Amazon'.
My advice is to bone up on it as best you can and start putting your toes in the water.
And if in doubt, ask your kids for a hand or two. Whilst they may not be able to advise you on how to conduct your business using social networking, they can at least provide some insights into the language and culture of this brave new world.
In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team, which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond. www.theeteam.com.au.