It's not just hype; there are important things going on. But the underlying reality is not new:
Enabling communities of interest, not just of location, may be the single most important benefit of the internet. The social explosion is all about community.
That was true in the days of e-mail lists and Usenet. It was true of BBSs using dialup modems. Smart merchants like Amazon.com understood this early on. A bricks and mortar store is an in-person expression of community. So is the long-tail aggregation of demand made possible by online merchants--it extends that core idea, but takes location out of the equation.
We rarely think about long tail effects in terms of noncommercial interactions, but that is precisely what is happening, as shown by the hundreds of millions of interconnected friendships online, and it's worth a LOT of money: in May, 2011, Mashable reported estimates of Facebook's value near $100 billion. So what is different today?
- The number of people who are connected often enough, reliably enough, has enabled more communities, and larger ones like Facebook. We're seeing the network effect in action.
- The portability of communities has exploded thanks to smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. The idea of community-of-interest was limited when you had to be in one particular place (at your desktop computer) to be a part of one. Location awareness via GPS magnifies this effect (see Foursquare.)
- The community gestalt has shifted; a critical mass has experienced internet community for a long enough time that communities-not-of-shared-presence are the norm rather than the exception for many cases. Have you ever felt you knew an online friend better than some of the people you see every day?
There are fortunes to be made, and influence to be gained, by those who successfully understand this reality, and see the opportunities. We can use innovation and common sense to be those people and those companies, and take advantage.
Tomorrow, I'll publish an infographic that is the first iteration of this idea, and begin a discussion in which we think about tech inflections and likely outcomes. I've come up with 6 core themes, and Community is one of them. What would you list for the other 5? That may be something for the community to decide.