How new is social media? Given the definition provided by Merriam-Webster, “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content” (2019), one could justly assume that social media is a fairly new concept relying solely on the applications and system software of electronic devices, the internet, and the large number of online users. Writing on the Wall: Social media–The first 2,000 years by Tom Standage (2013) leaves the reader with a different understanding of what social media is and how long it has existed. If one were to attempt to recreate this definition to include the information Standage reveals in his book, social media would not be a construct solely-dependent on online collaboration. Instead, social media would be defined as the steps taken and the devices or techniques used (not limited to an online format) by humans to communicate with one another and to share information over large distances. In other words, social media was created to answer: how do we get information from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in the simplest way possible? With this new definition, social media becomes a concept that has existed since humans first began to communicate with each other.
So what does any of this have to do with the library? Standage’s book is undeniably a history text, however, while it provides many details and facts about major events and historical accounts, the author’s primary intention was to reveal the high demand information has always experienced, pointing out groups (such as governments) that try to suppress this information, and the ingenious methods people came up with in order to continue to spread information to friends, family, everyone. Standage includes well-known methods such as the telephone and the television, but also describes the spread of information via graffiti and through the act of sneaking folded messages into the pockets of unsuspecting community members (2013). For libraries, it is all about getting users to the information they want, but with the shift towards internet technologies, “who needs a library today, when it is possible” to discover almost anything “without even getting out of bed” (Denning, 2015).
The most important idea conveyed by Tom Standage is that information and communication (social media) are dependent on the other and that both are constantly evolving. We can observe, in history, how the idea of social media has evolved and how its recent innovations have only been attempts to improve the means for information to be passed from creator to user, not to make the library irrelevant. After all, we have social media to thank for paper, printing, books, basically the very existence of the library (Standage, 2013). As librarians try to prepare their collections and institutions for the future and as the rest of the population grapples with this evolution, Tom provides four key takeaways important to understanding the information profession and to understanding how our world works:
1. Humans rely on communication
2. Humans are constantly seeking information
3. Information is important, the more information the better
4. Humans are constantly finding new ways to share information quicker and to a wider audience (Stadage, 2013).
Steve Denning (2015) offers librarians five questions to consider when trying to manage a library in this new age:
- How do we make our users happy?
- How do we maintain continuous innovation?
- How can we make services more convenient and less expensive?
- What hasn’t been invented yet that could make information seeking even easier?
- What do users continue to like about the library?
These questions reinforce the idea that a successful library is one that focuses on the needs and wants of their users and as Standage points out time and time again, people want information, as much information they can get their hands on, and they want to use social media to discover and share even more.
People have always relied on communication for daily activities, to expand their knowledge, to encourage creativity, and inspire innovation. This has always been the world of communication and the dissemination of information. Librarians have been misled into thinking they need to compete with technology, yet the very goal of technology has been to improve the social media medium for communication and research to become easier than it has ever been. As I progressed through the remaining pages in this book, I believe I was being led down a path that revealed a hopeful message: information relies on communication, communication relies on information; the larger the audience, the greater the effect information can have on society and society wants this; therefore future technology will continue to strive to improve human communication and librarians will strive to incorporate these technologies, further improving their collections and services (Standage, 2013). The library is built on everything discussed up to this point, communication and information cannot exist without the other, and the library requires both in order to serve its community efficiently. Because librarians can observe this cycle in Writing on the Wall, change is no longer a surprise or something to be feared, it can be expected and librarians can learn from the past to avoid making the same mistakes of their predecessors and in order to prepare their institutions for the future.
Denning, S. (2015). Do we need libraries? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2015/04/28/do-we-need-libraries/?utm_campaign=ForbesTech&utm_source=TWITTER&utm_medium=social&utm_channel=Technology&linkId=13831539#6ae2dad6cd7f
Merriam-Webster. (2019). Social media. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/social%20media
Standage, T. (2013). Writing on the wall: Social media–the first 2,000 years [E-reader version]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Wall-Social-Media-First/dp/1620402831
Writing on the wall photograph.(n.d.) Retrieved from http://media.bloomsbury.com/rep/bj/9781408842065.jpg