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Thoughts on Social Change

This week's update starts far afield from media with a chemistry metaphor. In chemistry, a phase change describes the physical transition between basic states of matter like solids, liquid, and gas. The concept has since been used to describe turning points in other fields, particularly technology. 

In the book,
The Autonomous Revolution, Silicon Valley veteran Bill Davidow extends the concept even further to social phase change. He says, "When major structural transformations combine and interact over extended periods, they change institutions and norms so completely that an entirely new form of society emerges.” He concludes that big transitions, particularly the one we're in now, come with new infrastructures, commerce, governance, and belief systems. Not to mention conflict.

If you see the gravity in his thesis, I'd encourage you to revisit our Coherence Crash
research for a more profound sense of new social texture and effects on the "status quo." To add to that ethnographic view, also consider cycles of change illustrated in the chart below. 

Cycles of media and culture change tend to follow five-year cycles. Moving into 2021, we will see a convergence of both threatening dynamics as well as a spirit of renewal. 
A few critical points for practical explanation:

1) As we’ve seen as a long-time leader in social business strategy and marketing, structural change in communications takes demonstrative turns roughly every five years. Each creates culture shocks that ripple across politics, media, and commerce — and the way we need to think about our work.

2) The story isn't isolated to platform updates. Fundamental change happens when people use networks beyond intended design, when attention flows in different directions, and when power plays kick in. Following the media in 2020 gave a clear sense of what this feels like as a user and citizen. As both, we know what's happening can be seen as cultural innovation versus technology enhancement. There's long been a yin and yang between the two.

3) So there’s a pattern here; a simple, repeatable progression. Follow the tech. Decode changing behaviors and cultural norms. Participate as appropriate. Adjust to new fundamentals. (This is clearly easier said than done.)

Our analysis suggests we’re in the midst of another fractious turn, both technologically and culturally speaking. Social media had outsize effects on tensions and threats leading into 2020. Simultaneously, it will also have a central role in reconnection and renewal this year. 

In between, we’ll feel the continued effects of bipolar societal pull. Our economy is traditional at one end and virtual at the other. Markets are conflicted between sound economics and trading upended by social forces. Global systems of governance struggle between authoritarian and open, democratic rule.

All this conjecture is proven by the GameStop frenzy this week. Beneath surface coverage, we find another populist-inspired uprising organized online. Those in the forums, in the millions mind you, strategized and plotted using publicly available information in plain sight. For hedge funds, it was a Black Swan event. For pundits and economists, it’s fodder for debate between market fundamentals and dangerous speculation. For regulators and trading networks, it's a defining moment (as of this writing a relative
bloodbath for GameStock, for Robinhood a rough day with traders and free-market advocates). 

I can't be the judge on market effects, but I do think it's important to dissect what allows this to happen in the first place: human ingenuity, shared interests, and hyper-connected communications; participants in forums like WallStreetBets expertly use social, convene on alternative platforms (off-the-radar of mainstream media and pundits), and devise unthinkable ideas that become real in a matter of hours. In short, they know technology and its potential advantages that others ignorant of new mechanics can't see. What is an aberration to many is blindly obvious to those in the game.

One important note in processing this all. Companies and brands are exposed if social media is simply seen as a means to convey messages and sell stuff. It's now the underlying infrastructure recalibrating how society works. It can no longer be narrowly perceived as an advertising medium on a finite number of super platforms. Alternative social networks and gaming are profoundly reshaping ecosystems, with effects to monitor closely. We're still VERY early in the build/rebuild that will take on wholly different forms — both technically and culturally — than what we have now.
So as we think about what's in store, remember chemistry. The form factor of media is changing. Our understanding of water — no matter how in-depth — doesn’t inform how we deal with ice. 

Chris Perry


As always, if you find this newsletter valuable we would be grateful if you encouraged others to sign up by directing them here.
What We're Reading
GameStop, Meme Stocks, and the Revenge of the Retail Trader
By Alex Wilhelm, Jonathan Shieber, TechCrunch
Video game retailer GameStop’s stock price has increased dramatically due to the actions of users on the WallStreetBets subreddit. The Reddit users pushed the stock up from $20 on January 11 to a staggering high of $146.97. The company found itself at the center of a battle between short-sellers and online traders all because of what one Reddit moderator called “a meme stock that really blew up.” 
Data Ethics
The Battle Inside Signal
By Casey Newton, The Verge
As many big social networks have faced recent backlash over updated privacy policies and censorship accusations, tens of millions of users began seeking alternative spaces to connect. Among the biggest beneficiaries has been Signal. But the fast-growing encrypted messaging app is making itself increasingly vulnerable to abuse. Current and former employees are sounding the alarm. 
Why Does Big Tech Want Us to Feel Nostalgic?
By Eleanor Peake, New Statesman

The instinct to document and retell our stories is as old as the human experience. It's not surprising that tech companies capitalized on this positive social driver. Psychologists say that memory features on social media apps and devices keep us more attached to our screens, as they connect us to meaningful aspects of our past.

Modern Content Canvas
Doubling Down on the Future
By Margit Wennmachers, a16z

Andressen Horowitz has embraced speaking directly to its audience since the firm’s founding in 2009. After more than a decade of producing high-quality blogs and podcasts, the influential venture capital firm — which has funded startups including Facebook, Medium, Twitter, Airbnb — is building "a new and separate media property about the future that makes sense of technology, innovation, and where things are going." Proof that any company can be a media company.

New Influence
From Harry Styles to Kevin Hart: New Content Studios Are Selling Meditation and Sleep With Stars' Help
By The Hollywood Reporter

In an age of anxiety, the lines between mindfulness and entertainment are blurring as apps such as Headspace and Calm partner with a host of celebrities. With political and cultural turmoil coming from all sides, meditation apps provide people with tranquil thoughts and calming whispers. And there's nothing more soothing than a familiar voice.

Modern Content Canvas
Apocalyptic Games Can Be an Escape During Pandemic
By Sascha BrodskyLifeWire

Even as news headlines grow grimmer during the coronavirus pandemic, many gamers are finding comfort in titles that imagine an apocalypse. Players claim that end-of-the-human-race games act as both an escape and a way to connect with a stressful world. 

Emerging Technology
Shutterstock Makes a $75 Million Bet that the Future of Photography Won’t Always Involve Cameras
By Lilly Smith, Fast Company

Shutterstock acquired the 3D model company TurboSquid, signaling a new direction for the photography industry: One that increasingly doesn’t just sell photos.

Deep Take
Big Ideas Report 2021
By Ark Invest

We're witnessing an unprecedented acceleration in new technological breakthroughs. Ark Invest's annual research report seeks to highlight the latest developments in innovation and offers provocative research conclusions for the coming year. We've checked out the report — it's worth the download.

Copyright © 2021 Weber Shandwick

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