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How social media is changing the world

By now much has been written about Facebook going public. The company filed papers last week with the Securities and Exchange Commission that trumpet its intention to raise at least $5 billion by selling shares to the general public.

To me, the event was a coming-out party of sorts, not just for Facebook but social media in general.

We all knew that Facebook is popular, but now we know that its even bigger than many of us had imagined. As we think about social media, it’s important to remember that it includes not only the obvious names like Facebook, Twitter and Google, but also thousands of others, including Linked-In, Tagged, Ning, MyYearBook and even (still) MySpace.

It didn’t surprise me that the company upped its total active user-base to 845 million, but I was amazed that 483 million of those users — 57 percent — are active on a daily basis. The company also revealed that members generated more than 2.7 billion “likes” or comments per day during the final three months of last year and that there were more than 100 billion friend connections as of the end of 2011.

What all this shows is that Facebook isn’t just big, it’s also vibrant. Its community is actively involved in creating content, sharing and interacting. Although we don’t have this level of detail from other companies, my sense is that this is generally true across social networking. I also see it every day on Twitter and Google+ — a constant stream of comments and responses as well as people asking and answering questions.

This is an important reminder not just for potential investors, but for users and policy makers who are coming to grips with the enormous potential power of social media.

As part of the official S1 form Facebook filed to announce the offering, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a letter where he talked about the importance of the printing press and television and added, “Today, our society has reached another tipping point. We live at a moment when the majority of people in the world have access to the internet or mobile phones — the raw tools necessary to start sharing what they’re thinking, feeling and doing with whomever they want.”

I have to agree and, of course, the credit doesn’t all go to Facebook. Collectively, social networking, the blogosphere and just the ease of creating one’s own website or even sending out e-mail, has fundamentally changed the world’s media balance.

While big brands, including some celebrities and politicians, are able to amass vast numbers of followers or subscribers on these services, people of lesser fame still have the ability to influence the conversation.

I’m not claiming that every Facebook or Twitter user has as much power as Rupert Murdoch or columnists and commentators for big media companies, but collectively, people are able to express themselves louder than any time in history. And thanks to the cameras and camcorders built into mobile phones, it’s now possible for anyone to capture footage that can be seen around the world in a matter of seconds.

Social media also creates new media stars. Robert Scoble (@Scobleizer on Twitter) has never been a journalist or TV or movie personality, but he has nearly 240,000 followers on Twitter, 119,000 subscribers on Facebook and more than 382,000 people who have him in their Google+ circles. That’s a lot of influence for a guy who has never been officially anointed a pundit by a major media company.

Even people with relatively few Twitter followers or Facebook friends or subscribers (Facebook now lets you make your page available for non-friends who want to “subscribe”) can reach millions if others re-tweet or share their posts. While most social media posts get relatively little notice, some spread rapidly and can have an enormous impact. And since one can never be completely sure when that might happen, politicians and corporations should never dismiss anyone’s comment for fear that it could be the one to “go viral.”

As I wrote last week, I worry about the vast power that social media companies can wield — having a billion “friends,” as will soon be the case for Mark Zuckerberg, gives you enormous reach. But I also think it’s important to remember that Facebook refers to itself as a “social utility,” like the wires and radio spectrum that can link every telephone in the world. Facebook and Twitter’s role isn’t to create content, but to empower others to share what they create.

Just ask former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the power of social media. While Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and other technologies didn’t cause social unrest in Egypt, they sure made it easier for activists to do something about it.

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