Remember back in 1999 when your kids were into this obnoxious fad called the Internet? Remember when one of your friends – the big dreamer type – would prod you about getting an e-mail address, because it was so much better than “snail mail”? Remember your amusement when somebody told you they had “downloaded” a song from this silly Internet thing, or watched a clip of the Simpsons? There was a lot of buzz about buying things online. Iconoclasts of this brief dot.com era would speak with utter disdain at the notion that consumers would have to get in their cars, drive across town, and purchase “things” in “boxes” when they could just have them delivered to their home electronically. The news-o-sphere was all atwitter with stories of “e-commerce” and it seemed everyone was trying to figure out how to do the thing they were already doing, but do it electronically. There were awkward pushes across the board: weird cartoons with a technology called Flash, next-day delivery on lobsters and only lobsters, strangers selling you their chotchkies, and that talking sock puppet dog even made it on Good Morning America.
There was a lot of excitement about what this Internet thing could do, and it seemed all you needed to do to secure venture capital was put an “e-” in front of your name, or a “.com” at the end of it. Large, high risk investments were made without the careful consideration usually given to start-up companies. And so, around 2000, this bubble burst. Trendy startups like Google and eBay went broke and never fulfilled that delusional promise of reshaping our culture, and we happily went back to watching the Mary Tyler Moore show and took our news from the same four talking heads we always had. Feeling burned we all made sure that we never heard from the Internet again.
I am somewhat disappointed in myself for returning to the topic of social media so quickly, but there is a lot of buzz these days about the demise of social media, and it is rare that the “Anti-Buzz” is given such a clear purpose. Yes, like the dot.com boom of the late 1990s, many social media companies are suspiciously high-valued – for reference, Facebook has an IPO larger than Disney – and the “gold rush” of investment could lead to a similar crash in stock prices for these companies. People want to know that the large entities in their lives are not invincible, and so people like stories of corporate demise. People also like to dismiss change as a mere fad. Social media is the new television, the new VCR, the new cellphone. For many people it’s the latest, “thing that everyone but me seems to be using.” And so any news that sounds like it might be going away is welcome.
What gets ignored is that a tech bubble does not mean the demise of a technology, it just means some people are spending their money foolishly. Unless you own shares of Zynga stock, this social media bubble is not going to affect you. In the dot.com bust, individual companies failed and sometimes failed spectacularly, but the enthusiasm for Internet business was never misplaced; what was misguided was thinking you could offer free shipping on 40 pounds of cat litter. So maybe Skype will implode. Perhaps angry shareholders will tear apart Facebook. Who knows, but social media is here to stay regardless. This is how a generation of people socialize, and hoping the bubble will spare you the burden of “getting it” with yet another new technology is only going to leave you further behind.