This article was first published in the Lansons newsletter, focusing on an international theme.
I’ve often obsessed about the social connections between humans, as if somehow the act of touching one’s hand passes on a secret ingredient. In the first year of University I got to shake hands with Stephen Fry, if only that was required for passing a degree. Imagine all the people who he had met, who in turn had met others.
It was American playwright John Guare who first publicised through his play Six Degrees of Separation that the world may be smaller than we think. The theory is that between you and David Cameron (or your uncomfortable Tinder date) is five other points of contact. Just five people are between you and anybody else in the world. Microsoft provided some meat for this theory in 2008 by analysing 30 billion messages on Microsoft Messenger in 2006 that concluded a 6.6 degree of separation[i].
Now Facebook, arguably one of the most connected and actively used social networks in the world has revealed that we’re just 3.57 degrees away from each other (at least among the 1.59 billion people active on Facebook). Leaving our next question not to dwell on degrees of separation but to think, why did we feel the world is bigger than it is?
You can find out your average distance through your Facebook account here (mine is a lower than average 3.32). No matter where you were born, what your upbringing was like, or what you do for a living, the human race really is one big family; all 7 billion of us are connected with each other. It’s only been in the last 10 years that social media has allowed us to explore the depth of this truth for the first time. Not only as an impact on our social lives, but as a fundamental truth about the internet, it’s international.
It’s also never been more accessible. Across the European Union (EU) the average internet penetration rate stands at 79.3% — that’s 402,937,674 people with internet access. Of all 28 countries only 11 fall below the accumulative average; Romania the lowest at 56%. In a global study of 240 countries 3 billion people were found to use social media, with 2 billion social media accounts detected, 1.6 billion of these used frequently, considered active.
Think of it this way, there are now more internet connected devices on the planet than humans. Not surprising considering the average British household owns over 7 internet-connected devices[ii]. An infrastructural challenge recognised in the late 1980s when IP address exhaustion was mentioned for the first time[iii].
Organisations need to adapt
Our ability to quickly access information and express ourselves online has fundamentally reshaped our public, private, and personal lives. The World Economic Forum’s report on Digital Media and Society focused specifically on this aspect of modern living, “Around the world, people now spend more time using laptop computers and smartphones than they do in other daily activities, and our ‘connected time’ is on the rise”[iv]. Increased usage has proliferated into an array of varying internet-connected devices such as laptop and desktop computers, tablets, smartphones, and wearable technology.
Such developments challenge traditional business models across a multitude of industries as peoples’ behaviours and expectations change in an internet-connected age.
In the UK electronic patient records challenge patients to be data literate with their health[v], in financial services banks across the EU will need to soon face the challenge of providing standardised API access[vi], and in media relations web 2.0[vii] has challenged traditional news structures. Only recently The Independent confirmed an end to its print edition, instead working towards a digital future[viii].These advances challenge organisations to make a cultural shift, maintaining an internal infrastructure that is able to join in with online conversations. This is because markets are conversations and consist of humans with interests, not demographic sectors[ix].
Social networks encourage connections, interactions, and relationships between people. They are more than cold channels to push marketing materials, they provide the infrastructural means for social connections to be made between people, regardless of geographical boundaries.
An active international social networking community exists for all organisations, as media relations becomes an optional part of public relations. For highly regulated industries, such as financial services and health, social media can be challenging to adopt and require investment. Regardless of whether this investment happens, online conversations continue globally.
The challenge today is to think beyond publications and digital communication ‘channels’. These are not mindless pipes to broadcast information, but international communities who gather around interests. Whether these are passions, questions to solve, industries — degrees of separation haven’t just shown the world is smaller, but highlights pockets of activity.
This can be visually seen when ‘memes’ are shared as shown in the tragic case of Twitter’s most influential moment last year with #RefugeesWelcome. It’s impossible to shift the image of the three year-old Alan Kurdi whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey.
It sparked an international movement, tweets that had the potential to influence foreign policy. Data shows how the first tweet appeared of Alan Kurdi in Turkey, which in 12 hours reached 20 million people around the world[x]. Conversations shifted from ‘migrants’ to ‘refugees’ overnight. #RefugeesWelcome is a sensitive case that examples a significant ability of modern public relations; tracking message changes and influencer connections to the minute.
I’ve always obsessed about the social connections between people and organisations, and this has never been more important, especially as international social media usage increases. Social media sites are not cold marketing ‘channels’, they are communities who organisations need to engage with as peoples’ behaviours broaden from traditional media relations.