It has been said that we are living through a new industrial revolution. There are in fact many similarities – advances in technology are supplanting jobs (then: in textiles, now: in manufacturing), expanding new markets (then: new canals connected Britain, now: Richard Branson will take you to outer space) and bringing consumers delightful new products (then: the bicycle, now: the iPhone). However, the industrial revolution focused on the making of things: our ancestors made steam engines and iron ore. Today’s revolution is about bringing people together.
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we need to satisfy our physiological and safety needs before we can focus on the others, such as belonging and self-actualisation. The industrial revolution brought more and more people up the hierarchy and the last century gave our parents and grandparents new comforts: electric kettles, vacuum cleaners and Jacuzzis.
Now our bellies are full, houses warm and we can take indulgent bubble baths, we are looking for ways to share these delights.
Facebook, the giant social network, helps us show off and stay in touch with friends who would otherwise be lost. However, this social network is now too big to serve the purpose of belonging, so a myriad of others are popping up with the sole purpose of connecting people. Online dating services are an obvious example - in the US alone, the online dating market had revenues of $2bn in 2015). But dating is not the only reason why people are looking for ways to connect: sites such as Mumsnet and Behance have loyal and active members who identify with what the community stands for.
On average, we are on 5.5 social networks and this number is only going to rise, as digital natives - people who grew up with social media - come of age and gain disposable income. Memberships of social communities are now an integral part of our behaviour, both online and off, as shown by the wild popularity of the selfie stick. Some of these communities, such as Amazon reviewers, help us make decisions, others help reach our goals and yet others help us learn anything from coding to Persian poetry.
In 1764, the Spinning Jenny pushed us up a notch in the needs hierarchy and was the first spark in a great upheaval. Today’s inventions cater to our needs as social creatures, who need approval, seek advice and want a sense of belonging. The social network, in all its forms, is our generation’s Spinning Jenny.