Year-end may be a time for reflection but 2011 has allowed for little of that. Most of us are far too focused on what happens next rather than looking back with some sweet and sickly reverence about the good times.
Whilst the pre-Columbian Maya calendar suggests none of us will live to see the end of 2012 (cheery stuff), those who dare to think that far ahead will likely look at 2011 as an ignition point for political, economic and social volatility (my, what an equally chirpy prospect).
The rise of the right-wing ‘extremists” in the US; austerity overload across Europe; heightened concern over nuclear power; equal concern over nuclear stability; the potential of the Arab Spring and the implications of the Arab Fall; a fractured Iraq – and a hawkish Iran; social media explosion and media integrity implosion; and, of course, the point at which last orders at the bar of effective climate management saw cries for a lock-in from those too inebriated to care. If 2012 is the year is which all of these happy little dynamics are realised, then we’ll probably all perish from the deafening shrill of the Mesoamericans crying, I told you so, before the planet even gets the chance to go pop.
The lowest common denominator across each of these events has to be the fact that the elasticity of our social cohesion is reaching its breaking point. We may be no more protective of our proverbial patch today than were our ancestors 5000 years ago, but the fact that we’re now living on top of each other – metaphorically, physically, virtually and emotionally – makes the consequences of misjudged efforts of global socialisation just a little bit more immediate.
Those who have long promoted the benefits of the archetypal village community have oft been disregarded as liberal idealists and out of touch with 21st century living. Enter Prince Charles. But there’s no small irony that the very concept of community has since been adopted by those whose world is far more virtual. The fundamental principle of Facebook is, of course, that people like people who share common interests and outlooks. It is, in effect, a matrix of online villages that, combined, tips half a billion inhabitants. And they exist in “communities”.
The fact is people want communities. They want social cohesion. They want to be part of something that they can see, touch, observe and contribute to. It may be counter-intuitive to point to this year’s riots in the UK as an example of community at work. But even rioters need other rioters to make things happen. You simply can’t have a riot of one. It doesn’t work.
And this is where the dynamism and permanency of social media is so exciting. In 2011 it showed its potential. It was the tool through which people movements were mobilised and governments were toppled. But it remains a communications tool and, if it is to satisfy the human need for community, it has to become far more of a social experience its own right.
For all the power of the written word, few have mastered it such that it can engage and empower communities, with the required degree of permanency. One-dimensional interaction, no matter how sexy the device, has its limitations. And that is the challenge for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and those who’ll likely fund his $100 billion market float, in 2012 – the year in which social media might finally come of age. How can a flat screen provide a more connected, tactile experience that matches that at home, in a store, in a stadium or at a concert?
YouTube has only solved a fraction of the puzzle. It’s success as an entertainment channel makes it little more than that. Entertainment. Social media will begin to fulfil its potential when we become as engaged through our online environment as we are in our good-old-fashioned-everyday-walking-talking-touchy-feely-as-we-were-invented world. That’s when things might start looking up. Which would be great.
Let’s just hope we live to find out.