To really understand social media, you first need to know its 30-year history.

speakers corner conversationsHere’s a timely quote for you:

“…a place for conversation or publication, like a giant coffee-shop with a thousand rooms; it is also a worldwide digital version of the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, an unedited collection of letters to the editor, a floating flea market, a huge vanity publisher, and a collection of every odd special-interest group in the world.”

That’s not a bad description of social media.

But it wasn’t written about social media.

It was written by Howard Rheingold in his book, The Virtual Community. His book was first published in 1993, before the web even existed.

He was writing about Usenet,

In other words, the concept of social media, of online engagement and conversation, has been around before there were even websites online.

If you didn’t recognize that quote, you might be more familiar with this one:

“Markets are conversations.”

That comes from The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls and David Weinberger.

You can read the 95 Theses of the manifesto here, for free. (Scroll down their page a bit to find them.)

The Cluetrain Manifesto was published in 2001, and those guys nailed the social web, in advance of the arrival of sites like Friendster and MySpace, not to mention latecomers like Facebook and Twitter.

And if you are thinking about how social media leads to an amazing degree of connection and engagement between millions of individuals, and how companies have to tread carefully when entering these personal conversations, here is another quote for you.

“For online marketers, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news is that the Internet provides you with the largest and most connected network of prospective customers imaginable. It’s a dream. Tens of millions of people with money, connected within one, wonderful World Wide Web.

And the bad news?

The bad news is that it’s not your network. Not yours to own. Not yours to mine. Not yours to control, sell, swap or manipulate.”

That’s from an article I wrote for Clickz.com back in January, 2000.

What’s the point of this history lesson?

I think today’s discussions about social media are focused too much on the tools of the trade – the social media sites we use.

Social media tools have been around for a long, long time. Usenet, Bulletin Boards, CompuServe and Prodigy were connecting people and their conversations back in the 1980’s.

Today our technology is more advanced, our connections are faster, and our social media tools are a great deal more sophisticated, and easier to use. (No more racks of modems in your best friend’s basement.)

So when you look at social media as being something new, you’re missing the point. It isn’t new at all.

Our current crop of social media tools is new, bright and shiny, and they get a lot of press. And in 20 years from now people will likely no more recognize the name Facebook than they do CompuServe today.

The tools are transitory, but the social web is not.

In fact, I would argue that the framework of the web has always been about being social. The addition of commerce to the web is just a rather ungainly plugin.

Understand the social web before you open the toolbox.

If you really want to be a social media expert, you first need to understand the social web. You need to understand why, how and where conversations take place.

Most important of all, you need to figure out how to deliver authentic, sincere value when you join those conversations.

If you just throw an ad or special offer into the conversation, you’re not being social, and your audience will grow tired of you.

It’s like the network marketing enthusiast who goes to a party and won’t shut up about his amazing products. He is interrupting the conversation, spoiling everything for the group, and likely won’t be invited back.

Your job, as someone who really understands social media, is first and foremost to figure out how to take part in conversations without disrupting them. You have to bring real value.

Then and only then, open your toolbox of bright shiny social media sites, and decide which one or more will be best tool for the job in hand.

You don’t start with the social media sites and tools.

You start by truly understanding the social web, and the conversations you would like to join.

About the author: Nick Usborne is an online writer, copywriter, author and coach.

NOTE: Learn about my own social media training program – How to Make Money As a Social Media Expert.

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