Friday, 17 October 2014

Social Commerce - a phenomenon of communication technology advancement

Just because the road ahead is long, is no reason to slow down                                                                                                                                            

                                                                                Ralph Marston, author of The Daily Motivator.

We live in a ‘digital’ era where man’s technology landscape changes frequently. Science fiction of the past (eg, robots and self-driven vehicles) is reality today. Technologies such as videoconferencing, satellite navigation, online video casting and instant messaging /message conferencing are available at our fingertips.  The world has come a long way since the invention of the World Wide Web less than two decades ago – in 1995.

It’s interesting to note that this advancement has been the outcome of a post-war era, ie, the inventions have been mostly business-driven instead of being defence and armaments-driven.  As the world’s population heads upwards from the 7 billion mark (in 2012) towards 8 billion people (forecast in 2020 by the UN), we can expect some of the uppermost needs of business – to communicate with and engage more clients more quickly - to fuel further technology development at the ongoing fast and furious pace of today.

One of the foremost questions obviously is – where do we expect our technology landscape to be in another two decades, ie, circa 2035? The aim of this blog is not to provide a response to this kind of query which is best left to the prophets to answer definitively.  However as it is widely recognized today that business not only drives technology growth but also that business and technology are interwoven today to an extent that one cannot exist without the presence of the other, therefore it’s worthwhile studying the current upcoming directions and trends of man’s business technology domain, in order to obtain a clear idea of the road down which we’re headed and of the new emerging business paradigm called Social Commerce.
O Solitude! where are the charms that sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms than reign in this horrible place.
                                                from The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk (1782) by William Cowper
All of us have heard that man is a ‘social animal’. What does this mean? It means simply that solitude is abhorrent to human nature. Human beings constantly seek the company of other human beings. This is ‘hardcoded’ within our nature.
Establishing a line of communication with other humans is far easier today than it was 150 years ago when there was no telephone, let alone email and online social networking. In those days verbal communication was possible only by means of face-to-face encounters between persons. Long distance written communication via postal delivery was the only other form of explicit human communication that existed. The ‘delivery time’ of the latter ranged from several days to weeks, sometimes months.
The breakthrough occurred following the patenting of the telephone in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. Long distance verbal communication became a reality in our lives. Using the telephone to socialize and using the telephone to conduct business are so commonplace today that we do not even pause to think that this is the consequence of a gradual evolution following a landmark invention.  Nonetheless it’s worthwhile noting that irrespective of the form of communication, traditional social networking entities such as clubs, congregations and communities have existed since Shakespeare’s day (in the 1500s) and most likely, earlier. Commercial business (eg, buying and selling, promotional campaigns, etc) was conducted within such social platforms even in those early days. The primary difference between then and now is the speed and diversity of communication via advanced technology which has actually led to different forms of human presence/society being created in the virtual space of high-speed computer networks where a human being’s physical presence/location is superseded by a virtual identity. Conduction of business upon a Social Media platform such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ or a proprietary one within a large Enterprise, is termed Social Commerce; however the basic concept of Social Commerce has existed for centuries. After all the word “social”, being a key aspect of the human disposition, is bound to have a direct correlation with commercial engagement which primarily involves establishing buyer-seller relationships between groups and/or individuals.
Since the invention of the telephone, a number of other long distance communication inventions have followed. Such as wireless radio (of which mobile phones of today are a more sophisticated version), television, the telegraph, the fax, email, SMS, the worldwide web and finally, online social media.  It is interesting also to review the progress of business communication models along with the emergence of these technologies.
Use of the telephone for commercial purposes has evolved from ‘cold calling’, setting up appointments, making follow-up calls to running promotional campaigns/telemarketing programs and finally to teleconferencing with multiple simultaneous participants in a phone call – a more ‘social’ mode of operation without the need of all participants to travel to the same location.
For many years wireless radio was the only other form of one-way media communication (eg, news, entertainment and commercial programs) apart from newspapers and journals.  A two-way version of the technology was also used for transport navigation/traffic control - first ships and then aeroplanes. Today’s satellite navigation GPS systems (used in cars, ships and aircraft) are also essentially comprised of wireless radio technology. Prior to today’s mobile phone era, radio-conferencing of multiple participants using proprietary channels was limited to sectors such as defence and high-powered government departments and did not evolve as a universal means of social media type communication like teleconferencing as it was merely another form of voice conferencing.
The telegraph was the first means of communicating encoded text (telegrams) via high-speed long-distance links such as an electrical wire or an ocean cable. In those days a telegram was often called a ‘wire’ or a ‘cable’. Use of the telegraph for business and/or urgent personal matters was common and prolific until the commercial adoption of facsimile (or fax) technology where scanned documents could be transmitted and received via telephone lines. While these kinds of inventions have greatly enhanced the speed of doing business, they employ a one-to-one communication model instead of the one-to-many and the many-to-many communication models of social media.
When commercial television appeared it was a more advanced mode of technology than radio as it introduced a dynamic visual motion picture parameter to a media broadcast in addition to the audio one that people were used to. However the form of technology did not easily lend itself to multiple interactive simultaneous (or ‘social’) participation as in a teleconference. Therefore it has not progressed to a form of social media either.
The internet was a significant breakthrough in the history of human communication leading initially to the creation of electronic mail (or email) messaging that rendered telegrams obsolete.  Ready availability of inexpensive scanners connected to personal computers today has also rendered the fax as obsolete. The massive power of many-to-many multi-way voice and data communication via the internet is indeed a tremendous human achievement that is almost taken for granted in today’s ‘digital’ era. Creation of the ‘World Wide Web’ in 1995 led to a spate of subsequent technological development in areas such as electronic commerce, including online payments/purchasing,  instant messaging, online videoconferencing and finally, social media.
Concurrently with the internet, mobile or ‘Cellular’ communications emerged as an integrated form of earlier technologies such as the wireless radio and the telephone. The first analogue mobile phones were quickly superseded by digital technology which lent itself more readily to communicating data in addition to voice. First text data, then images and finally video, can all be communicated via today’s mobile phones.  The use of mobile phone text messages are a common occurrence today in our everyday lives for both business and personal purposes.  One-to-many and the many-to-many communication using voice and data is feasible over mobile phones and smart tablets today and this has landed us in the exciting new era of social commerce employing social media.
We live in an era where its commonplace for an average person to carry a portable easy-to-use touch-screen hand-held device with advanced photographic/video-recording abilities that is also internet enabled for voice, data and social media communication. Thus the opportunities for humans to socialize and to communicate for business purposes using one-to-many and the many-to-many models of instant communication technology is far greater than it has ever been. The key here is the social aspect of communication - multiple communicators being able to interact simultaneously with very usable devices in a ‘virtual’ world without the need of changing physical location via social media. A new model of online commerce called social commerce is emerging in a manner similar to the emergence of electronic commerce 15 years ago.

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