‘The Age of Context’: A glimpse into Robert Scoble, Shel Israel’s new book

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A little while ago I interviewed Robert Scoble and one of the key things that came out that interview was his belief that we are about to enter an age of context. The way he sees it, we are shifting away from the “age of social into the age of context” where information will based on the context of where we are and who we are with. The idea that the world is moving from a social world to a social-contextual world is the core component of his latest book.

The new book, The Age of Context, is the collaborative effort of both Scoble and Shel Israel — a writer who has co-authored two books with Scoble.

The latest book, as Israel describes it is, “about the next phase of technology’s relentless advance. We are talking about an era where our relationships with our technology becomes far closer because the technology understands who we are, where we are and what we want.”

Israel says that the opening chapter of the book deals with five converging forces:

  • social media
  • really smart mobile devices
  • sensors
  • Big Data
  • mapping

“We argue that the confluence of these five forces creates a perfect storm whose sum is far greater than any one of the parts.”

Below is an extract from the book, a brief history on social media and how it became insanely popular in a short time.

Social media… has been the most disruptive of our five forces. It is also the youngest. In 2005, when we started researching an earlier book extolling its virtues, there were less than 4 million people using it and many business people dismissed it as a passing fad. By 2012, there were nearly 1.5 billion people using social networks on a regular basis.

The most recent billion have come onboard since 2009.

No single moment triggered social media. The term itself did not even come into fashion until late 2006. Before that, there were incidents and innovations, loosely joined by people who often knew each other. One little thing led to another and then another, each occurring in accelerating sequence.

It started taking off in the early 90s, even before there were browsers and it was difficult for nontechnical people to use the internet. The best starting point came in 1985, when the founders of a New Age almanac called The Whole Earth Catalog–created an online space that they named “The Well,” where people could meet and talk about anything they wished.

It gained many passionate followers and is recognized as the first online community.

People went to the well and talked with absolute strangers and discovered they shared common interests. There was a communal sense of mutual help. Talks sometimes got surprisingly upfront and personal. It created “a cult of generosity” as one writer called it.

It’s growth was surprising, but limited. It was still difficult for everyday people to get online. Connection was slow. Participation required you to understand have some technical sophistication.

But word got out.

One of The Well’s community managers, Howard Rheingold, wrote a book about it
called The Virtual Community, which spread the word further and planted seeds in the minds of many people about the mysterious phenomenon of the Internet.

Bill Johnston was a kid growing up in Tennessee. He went to the Well and was influenced. Years later, he would use Well dynamics when he set up the first enterprise community for Autodesk, the world’s leader in automated design.

Justin Hall, was also a student when he went to The Well and Rheingold’s book influenced him to start his own personal diary online where others could see it. He named it Notes from the Underground, a title lifted from Dostoevsky. He described it as a “web log,” a term that would eventually be shortened to “blog.” Hall developed an online following, that spike dramatically after he started posting links to the best porn sites that he could find each day.

For the most part Notes, remained an insider thing, mostly enjoyed by developers.

In 1994, Rheingold became the founding executive editor of HotWired magazine, an
edgy publication that explored the outer reaches of technology and thinking. Among the contributing editors was Dave Winer, a cantankerous, but brilliant serial entrepreneur, whose central focus was—and continues to be—computers as communications tools.

No individual would do more to get what we now call social media going. His journey probably started with DaveNet, a free, subscription-based email newsletter, which evolved into Scripting News, the first full-featured and widely followed blog. Started in 1997, it is still running today. Winer played fundamental roles in the development of not just blogs but RSS, which allowed people to subscribe; podcasting; and web content management.

Blogs became popular in the tech sector. The early ones used the language of geeks and adopted a decidedly anti-establishment posture, which accelerated in 1999 when The Cluetrain Manifesto was published. Addressed to the “People of Earth,” the book became a business best-seller by arguing that markets are conversations and that the internet would be where those conversations would take place.

Cluetrain started business people thinking about the internet as a marketplace and rethinking the way they marketed goods through traditional marketing and advertising.

The book never mentioned blogs and the authors would not blog themselves until well after the Cluetrain was published. But it unquestionably influenced most early bloggers.

Then, in 2000, the “dot-com” bubble exploded in Silicon Valley, spreading across the global technology community. Thousands of the world’s best and brightest developers were laid off. They had time on their hands and a certain anti-corporate attitude, amplified by their surprise unemployment. Many started to fill their space with blogging. In part, they were using the new medium to vent. But more than that, they began to share ideas for new products, new ways of doing business and ways to use open source yet prosper.

Open Source, a movement that would fundamentally change how software is developed was also a nascent movement at the time. But bloggers began to fan flames and imaginations. Conversations that had formerly taken place privately in coffee shops were suddenly being held in public online and new thinking spread faster than had previously been possible.

Spurred by developers, blogging started to touch everyone that developers touched. That included thinkers in business, government, revolution, religion, health, education and just about every other institution.

But the technology was still difficult to use and there was not space for the wildfire that would come. But a framework was being built–and it was a framework for a very large and shapeless thing in cyberspace.

By 2005, when Israel and Scoble wrote their book on blogging, many loose piece were coming together. Ethernet and some Wi-Fi were making it easy to connect and connections to be fast enough to upload a photo in about five minutes time.

Browsers came in, making it possible for everyday people to visit web sites. Blog authoring tools were available and inexpensive and easy enough for anyone to start blogging. The topics got broader than just tech conversations and people who blogged about the wonders of blogging.

Sometime in late 2006, social media got its name. More important, large pools of enthusiasts started to converge into something that was truly a Worldwide web. Social media and the mainstream found each other and then the wildfire ignited like grasslands in drought. It has burning ever since.

From 2006 to 2012, social media enjoyed the fastest rate of adoption in the history of technology. It became ubiquitous and essential to business and life. It changed virtually every institution on Earth, and mostly the changes have been for the better.

This is not to say social media was warmly embraced as it spread from person to person and from company to customer. In some places, the battle for conversations with customers and transparency of corporate practices were downright bloody struggles.

The seeds of social media were brought through most gates of institutional power by one or two champions. Most of them were mid-level employees who had to report to beleaguered managers whose focus was not a change in business strategy but rather in making it through each business quarter unscathed by failure to meet expectations.

Very often those champions reported to the company’s most steadfast opponent of social, which was disdained at first, then despised, by most corporate decision-makers. Ironically, by 2009 or so it was almost universally embraced.

In most modern organizations today, social media is woven into their very fabric. No modern enterprise devises a go-forward strategy without including an essential social media component. Social media is used in marketing, market research, communications, support, product development, user testing, talent recruiting and a good deal more.

This also is not to say that the wildfire has been extinguished. But by 2012, social media had become more like a controlled burn. It continued to spread and consume, but at a more even pace.

There is still considerable mopping up to do in the battle to replace one-directional, top-down, customer-as-targets approaches with more conversational and collaborative approaches. Change is often like that. There were people still meandering along in horse-drawn buggies long after Henry Ford introduced the Model T for everyday people to drive. Japanese soldiers were found living on Pacific Islands a full decade after World War 2 ended.

Somewhere today there probably exists a company still using typewriters and carbon paper, but that organization is probably irrelevant to most of us.

For the most part, social media—like rock and roll—is here to stay. And organizations that continue to ignore it will simply fade away.

And that is our key point. In a very short period of time social media has risen from oblivion, and is part of the lives and work of most people in the developed world.

It is now a mature platform—like email or the telephone—and that eliminates some of the fear, uncertainty and doubt about coming attractions in technology. All of it will have a social component.

Social will be an essential component of the internet, wherever the Internet goes and, as we are about to explain, the Internet is going to a great many places most of us never pictured before.

To tell you more about that, we will first have to explain how the other four forces will impact where (and with what) we will be having conversations in the near-term future.

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