A newly updated version of the YouTube Social Media Revolution film is doing the rounds and winning praise along with lots of “ooh, aah, look how quickly the world is changing!” messages.
There’s a little problem, though.
In its enthusiasm to makes its case it makes some very dodgy arguments about how the rate of technological change is speeding up.
The bit about “Some universities have stopped distributing email accounts” should raise sceptical instincts. Is that 1, 10, 100, 1,000 or 10,000? Sorry, according to the film that doesn’t matter. Because “ooh, ahh, look how quickly the world is changing!”.
The worst example of this is the often made comparison about how long different technologies took to get going. It features in the film but has also been for decades a staple of those excited about the future and about change.
Radio took 38 years to get to 50m users, the internet only four years, the iPod a mere three years and so on.
Except jump off the hype-train for a moment and consider:
a) The world’s population was a heck of a lot smaller in radio’s early days than it is now. So 50m then was something far more than 50m now, and
b) The radio figure is, when it is sourced, for take-up in the US. The internet and iPod figures are for global take-up.
So let’s adjust the figures to make them a proper like-for-like comparison. At the time radio hit 50m listeners in the US the US population was around 132 million, making radio’s penetration 38%. Currently the world’s population if around 6.8 billion, so to hit a similar 38% figure the iPod would have had to have got to 2.6 billion users. Kind of makes the iPod’s current take-up levels look rather puny compared to what radio actually achieved.
Of course under all this there are some serious, robust points about how the world is changing and how – for example – new technologies now often get unleashed across many countries at the same time rather than staying within one or a handful of countries for a long time.
But the next time someone says how amazingly quick a change has been compared to the radio, chances are like-for-like figures make its take up look an awfully long way of hitting the heights radio got to. And if you really want to understand the world, mixing and matching incompatible numbers can make for fun, but it doesn’t make for understanding.
UPDATE: I’ve since expanded on this idea and used it in the Engine Strategy Battle of Big Thinking: