“Time is the great equalizer in the field of morals.”  H.L. Mencken

Time magazine ran a thought provoking article this week titled “To Tweet or Not to Tweet”. Written by Zachary Karabell, who calls his column “The Curious Capitalist”, he puts forward an interesting thesis summed up roughly as this: the haves still have, the have-nots still don’t; and right now, the have-nots are those who aren’t reaping the myriad benefits of social media.

He breaks it down roughly as follows: Though the economy is still troubled, there is one area that is thriving, and that is social media. You can’t swing a cat these days without hitting a startup or an angel investor; money’s being made hand over fist; and industries as unique to each other as education is to home electronics are embracing social media and actively engaging their peers, their employees, and their communities. Hooray, right? Not quite. Because for all the benefits that social media can bring professionally and/or personally, there is an underclass that are being left behind. Society’s low wage earners, and the less educated.

He calls it “economic bifurcation”. Those that can afford the best, get better. Those that can’t, don’t. And he quotes a recent Pew Foundation study which found only 45% of American adults making less than $30,000 per year have access to broadband, which is an issue, he says, because broadband is an essential component to accessing content-rich social media effectively.

True, it’s difficult to physically pinpoint the return on the explosive growth of social media. Whether or not it is directly improving the economic prospects of your country/citizens or company/employees is often hotly debated. But what are we really to make of the statistic quoted above? And haven’t there always been deep divides – that were eventually bridged – when game changing advancements in technology and lifestyle occurred? Let’s take a look at a few of the biggies.

When the automobile started rolling out the factory doors, its popular adoption created an ease of mobility and spin off opportunities on a scale never known before. Yes, making cars put money into many other areas of manufacturing, and put a lot of people to work. No one would argue that once reliable, affordable transportation became the norm, people’s living habits and social customs were changed forever. But, the automobile began its life as a rare toy for the very rich. It took decades before the Ford Motor Company developed the affordable Model T. Once they did though, it sold in the millions, and the family car became as commonplace as owning a telephone is today.

Many people compare the rise of social media to that of the telephone. Twitter and Facebook are often seen by naysayers as nothing more than a vehicle for nattering with your pals about the latest gossip. Which is exactly what the telephone was once derided as being. It’s ironic that most people are Twittering away today on their smartphones! But, it took decades for the telephone to become as ubiquitous as it is now. At the turn of the 20th century only 1.4 million telephones served a population of 76 million Americans, even though the technology was introduced commercially over 20 years earlier. In fact, the telephone took nearly 60 years to become commonplace. Of course, some of that lag was due to difficulty in developing the infrastructure, but some of it was also due to simple accessibility. People in rural or outlying areas  – an entire class of people – were generally the last to benefit from an innovation that provided security, safety, and the ability to communicate in real time with others. Yet today, you would be hard pressed to find a household that didn’t have a telephone (or three!), no matter where you live or what your income.

The article’s title, “To Tweet or Not to Tweet”, is an obvious hat tip to that great English bard, William Shakespeare. And William Shakespeare’s works wouldn’t be torturing high school students today had it not been for another innovation that enhanced the world socially and economically – the invention of the printing press. While people since the beginning of time had used various archaic methods of ‘communication’, Gutenberg’s 15th century press changed how people became informed about issues. Prior to mass printing, the common man relied heavily on the church, government, or the ruling classes for news. This new way to access and share information allowed people to make up their own minds about what was going on in the world around them. It gave them knowledge, which gave them power, and ultimately, a certain freedom. But, having something printed was an expensive endeavour. When Gutenberg’s famous printed bibles were sold at a Frankfurt book fair, they cost the equivalent of three years pay for the average clerk of that day. Again, a revolutionary medium of communication and opportunity was reserved – initially – for the wealthy and well connected.

Fast forward to our day and age now. Karabell himself touches on the similarities between today’s new world of social media and the “new world” of the World Wide Web some 20 odd years ago. Back then people questioned whether Netscape and the web were enhancing the economy – and by extension society – or just providing a new way to goof off at the office. For those who had an office to go to, of course! In 1990 only 3 million’ish people worldwide had access to the internet. But, in less than 20 years, the number of worldwide internet users surpassed one billion.

So what’s the moral of all these comparisons and statistics? Time is the great equalizer. Historically, the latest and greatest advancements have always been available first to the wealthiest or best connected. It may not be fair, but it’s fact. But these days, as technological advances continue at such an astounding rate, the pace of the catch-up game has gone from turtle to breakneck. And the so called ‘have nots’, in the world of social media at least, won’t be lagging behind for long.

What do you think? Agree or disagree, we always appreciate your thoughts and opinions.