Saturday, June 18, 2011

Social Networks

What do Lady Gaga (10,999,135), Justin Bieber (10,436,368), Barack Obama (8,687,105), Britney Spears (8,234,189), and Kim Kardashian (7,915,103) have in common? Big numbers, for one thing. The numbers I reproduce are the followers they have on Twitter according to twittercounter.com (here). They are, in the order shown, the five most popular tweeters in the world.

Barack Obama stands out in two ways. He is not an entertainer, and he is the only person in the list who is over 31 years of age. For those fading few like me who did not recognize but perhaps two names on the list, Lady Gaga is Stefani Germanatta, a pop singer, aged 25; Justin Bieber is a 17-year-old Canadian singer; Britney Spear, 30, is a recording artist and entertainer, and Kim Kardashian, 31, is described by Wikipedia as a “personality” and a “socialite.”

The times are changing. What we are pleased to call “communications” is morphing into something very strange, never before seen—but, I hasten to add, so were newspapers when they first appeared in the wake of mechanized printing in the seventeenth century. Indeed, the social networks, which are now coming to dominance, are the consequence of electronic communications media. Growth rates are astonishing. Here is a graphic, built from data on this Facebook site, of three of them:


The big name (for now) is Facebook. The hot new property is Twitter. It more than doubled between last year and this. Twitter had 100 members (that’s one hundred, not a typo) in March 2006. LinkedIn, a business net-working site, has recently gone public and is now, suddenly, cluttering up my e-mail inbox.

It’s well to remember that “networking” actually pre-dates the Internet. The concept surfaced in the 1960s and was well established as a concept, indeed even as a quasi-institutional phenomenon, by the 1970s—long before the Internet was commercialized in 1995. You got ahead, it was said, by cultivating a network of well-placed acquaintances—courting them, as it were, consciously, with your own career in mind. I clearly remember once attending a seminar during the 1973-1975 recession; I was looking for consulting clients at the time, a tough time economically; the seminar much disappointed me. It had been too cleverly named. Everybody at the meeting was also looking for clients too— and not a client in sight! LinkedIn, not surprisingly, was the first of these social networks, established in December of 2002. Facebook began in February 2004, and Twitter appeared officially in July of 2006.

The growth in networks is matched by explosive growth in mobile devices. In the third quarter of 2010 alone, 417 million mobile phones were sold worldwide. And in that same time period, another 80.5 million smartphones were purchased. I have this from Marketsize entries reachable here. Instant availability of linkage to a global com-system, with or without wire, is matched by services that link people to each other—and to the personalities they wish to know all about, up to the minute, as it were.

Over against this we have a decline in the by now “traditional” newspaper establishment. In 2010 the top 100 newspapers in the United States had a daily circulation of a mere 21.9 million. Per Reuters, 379 papers had a daily circulation of 30.4 million in 2009, having declined 4.6 percent from 2008. As circulation drops and newspapers first thin out and then disappear, our carbon footprint is also presumably shrinking. Or so it would seem on the surface. The truth is that we can’t know for sure. Is the energy we save by producing less newsprint now consumed in making millions of electronic devices so that our population can keep in touch with events, like Now, like in Real Time, while On the Go?

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