Imagine it is 1881, three years since the printing of the first phone book and the founding of the first telephone company. You're one of the fortunate few with access to a telephone. Some have been grumbling that the device is a mere novelty, a passing fad. Others predict (correctly, of course) that the telephone is an innovation that will transform the very way humans communicate with one another. You, however, are busy capitalizing on a temporary window of access to decision makers that has been created by the confluence of low adoption and technological immaturity. Simply by dialing a number, you are able to connect directly with those who are all but unreachable by other means, and the relationships established through this exclusive channel will play an invaluable role in your success, and your company's success in years to come.
But the window soon starts to close. As adoption picks up, the exclusivity that once insulated telephone users from those they did not wish to communicate with quickly becomes a thing of the past. In response, switchboards are invented. Secretaries begin to screen calls for those who cannot be bothered. Unlisted numbers are offered. The gatekeepers arrive, and the era of unobstructed access ends.
We live in another such era, although few seem to notice. Social media affords us access to individuals that have barricaded themselves from nearly all other means of unsolicited contact. Executive assistants and receptionists act as human gatekeepers to company leaders, ensuring that unwanted and unexpected disruptions rarely occur. Technologies like spam filters and Do Not Disturb equip us all with the means to ignore or divert the communications we would rather not receive. And yet, social media channels are relatively devoid of barriers to access.
Broadly speaking, if we intend to communicate with someone that maintains a social media presence, we can do so quite easily. If we mention them on Twitter, for instance, odds are they'll see it. Even those with more than a million followers will engage with total strangers on occasion; perhaps because they found their content interesting, perhaps for other reasons. Better yet, if their writing appears online (on a company blog, a digital journal, etc.), one would be remiss not to leave a thoughtful comment or two.
Individuals are naturally curious as to what is being said about them, and they are increasingly turning to the Internet for answers.
According to a 2010 Pew study:
More than half (57%) of adult internet users say they have used a search engine to look up their name and see what information was available about them online, up from 47% who did so in 2006. (…) In the latest survey, 70% of internet users with a college degree had conducted a search for their name compared with just 43% of those with a high school degree or less.
Leveraging this phenomenon can be as simple as mentioning someone within a blog post, but some take it a step further. A job seeker named Alec Brownstein recently secured interviews at a top agency by buying ads that appeared whenever creative directors performed "vanity searches" for their own names.
Platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook are gradually implementing measures to limit access, as users demand more comprehensive and navigable privacy options. But newer sites like Quora — largely populated by early adopters — still allow a degree of access otherwise seen only in the early days of the most popular social networks. The individual networks themselves, then, tend to limit access as they become more popular. In the aggregate, our avenues of communication will continue constricting as adoption picks up.
The professional applications of social media are becoming increasingly clear, as job seekers are blogging, salespeople are prospecting through Facebook, and even Fortune 500 CMOs are tweeting. The online communities that used to serve as refuges from the workday are rapidly being integrated into our working lives. As social media starts to feel less like a choice and more like a professional requirement, a perceived need will arise for the same types of barriers workers now take for granted in the office.
But we're not quite there yet. Because people are still showing up to the social space by choice, it hasn't yet acquired the "stink" of work as usual. We currently don't see the need for the same kind of gatekeeping forces that we see in the professional world. It's unlikely that this will last.
Wherever there is access, there is exploitation — and profit. Spam is estimated to account for 78% of outgoing emails per day, and 10% of Twitter accounts are thought to belong to spammers. Tweet about blogging, for example, and you're likely to get an automated "bloggers wanted" spam reply, which will exist in your mentions feed until you manually delete it. Exploitation of access like this will ultimately be a major catalyst for the arrival of the social media gatekeepers. But such barriers, whether technological or human, often filter out those with better intentions, as when legitimate emails trigger junk filters and never reach their intended recipients.
Attitudes will harden towards unexpected and unrequested contact, and social media users will develop a heightened aversion to being "pitched," in much the same way that experiencing phone solicitations can make one hesitant to answer calls from strange numbers.
The cost of this learned caution, and of the coming barriers — perhaps inevitably — will be access.
Reprinted from BrianSolis.com
Brian Solis is the author of Engage and is one of most provocative thought leaders and published authors in new media. A digital analyst, sociologist, and futurist, Solis's research and ideas have influenced the effects of emerging media on the convergence of marketing, communications, and publishing. Follow him on Twitter @BrianSolis, YouTube, or at BrianSolis.com.