A scary as social media may sometimes seem, it isn’t forcing us to learn a whole new language or adopt unfamiliar customs. It is actually reintroducing us to the way we humans have communicated for more than 10,000 years.
Successful communication in the 20th century boiled down to this: “The one with the biggest megaphone wins.” But that was an aberration caused by the convergence of two powerful forces—the rise of mass communication and the birth of “public relations.”
Back in the 1920's, Edward Bernays, known as the “father of public relations,” asked in his essay Propaganda, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”
The answer was yes, as he soon proved. Bernays was an expert at manipulating people. That gift was literally in his DNA. His mother was Sigmund Freud’s sister his father's sister married Freud. And Bernays really loved his mom, which bugged Freud no end. ... No, that's not true. I made that up. But the other stuff is true. Can you imagine those family get-togethers?
Bernays also knew that the mass media infrastructure of the 20th century was ideal for the “manipulation and opinions of the masses.”
“The United States,” he said, “has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.”
The rise of PR coupled with a mass media network never before seen in human history conspired to profoundly change the way we communicated with each other, whom we trusted, and what we valued.
The most obvious effect of “regimenting the masses” was the homogenization of the American way of life.
Our experiences were the same. We lived in identical homes in identical subdivisions. We went to identical schools and sat at identical desks lined up in identical rows. And our parents identical cars to and from work at exactly the same regimented time.
Our interests were the same. We loved baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. We loved blond-haired, blue-eyed baby Jesus, hated commies, and every Sunday night at 7:30, we all sat down in front of the TV to watch The Wonderful World of Disney.
And our values were the same. We were all in pursuit of the American dream, which also meant we had to work hard to earn the money needed to buy the products that would help us keep up with the Joneses.
But this homogenization came at a heavy price.
We were becoming more isolated from each other. Time that was once spent sharing stories was now being squandered watching TV.
And through this isolation, we also lost our sense of community … a community that evolved from genuine interaction with people who shared our unique interests, our unique experiences, and our core values.
But then social media came along and brought us full circle to what Edward Bernays described as “an earlier age [where] a leader was usually known to his followers personally; there was a visual relationship between them. Communication was accomplished principally by personal announcement to an audience.”
Bernays meant that derisively. But it’s actually a very good thing.
Up next: You don’t have to be a star, baby … in fact, you really shouldn’t be if you want to be heard.