I stumbled upon a Discovery Channel program last night on the Roman Coliseum. When you look at the influence a structure like the Coliseum had on Roman civilization, it is quite amazing. However, what is more amazing is considering the influence it has on society – even today. It may seem like a stretch, but social networking has its origins in the Roman Coliseum.
The coliseum was built to bring Roman citizens together to create a “community” around a common interest. The common interest may have been watching gladiators fight each other to the death, but it was a common interest, none-the-less. The effects on Rome were significant. It created Roman cultural pride and unity around common interests. It improved communication among Roman citizens. It had a positive economic impact. It was a center for entertainment and social gathering. Ironically, these are the same benefits people are pointing to with social networking.
The Roman Coliseum was built by Emperor Vespasian to attract and organize the citizens of Rome into an orderly, but powerful crowd. Crowds have always been used to rally support for a common interest. Since the beginning of time, a requirement for creating a crowd has been a structure. It could be as simple as a mountain upon which a poet or dictator would shout, or a structure as sophisticated as the Roman Coliseum. These large structures were required because of the need to bring people within close proximity of each other.
Architecturally, the Roman Coliseum has been the blueprint for every major stadium since. As a vehicle for attracting and organizing a crowd, there have been very few improvements over the past 2000 years.
Today, social networks have removed the requirement to bring people physically together. The physical restraints have been removed and replaced with virtual connections. This creates near-instantaneous alignment and coordination of large groups of people. You could argue that radio and television had the same effect. However, these technologies only offered one-way communication. Even early websites, were essentially limited to pushing information and not creating a sense of community. Today, online communities are built quickly, efficiently and dynamically as needed. Communities organize around common interests and grow, shrink and disappear as needed. Unlike a coliseum however, where a large group aligns around a single event, social networks are offering millions of unique communities to choose from.
Additionally, unlike traditional physical events where they were owned by a single organizer, social networks are typically owned and governed by the community. The members actively participate in the process. The goals evolve based on the needs of the community. Rather than a single dictator, the group is jointly owned. The skilled members of the group and those who have a passion for the topic tend to lead the discussions. The groups self organize. The result is a highly efficient and powerful entity.
It has taken 2000 years to replace the physical requirements of a coliseum to attract and organize groups of people. We now have the ability to create virtual communities of tens, thousands, millions or billions of people – as needed. The power is quite staggering. What is your cause, and how will you use the power?
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