The Crowd is Our First Measure
If you've ever wandered around a fair, a carnival, or an open market the first thing you notice is a crowd. This instinctual filtering method has made the transition from humanity's real world experiences into the virtual spaces of the Internet. On a variety of web sites we are instantly given cues that a crowd has enjoyed a particular page.
Inherent to Google's algorithms, external links are built into search rank. The crowd has unknowingly selected and ordered the search. On YouTube we can quickly see the number of views a video has had. On social crowd sourced news and sharing portals (HackerNews, Digg, reddit) the primary information is how many other people have up voted or selected a novel post. On personal, news, and business web blogs we are reminded of the crowd from feedburner count of subscribers to it's feed. We can see the amount of feedback or buzz they generate in comments per post. All of these sites do their best to emulate the crowd. But among all of them, there is only one king of crowds, social media.
Social Media, the Massive Star
Social media's entire experience is one of dynamic sharing, engagement, and critical crowd formation. The greater the ability of crowds to form, the more effective the social media service is at attracting more readers. Let's say you have a small crowd of 100 people on your website. You could section them off like readers in a forum but these creates isolated or quickly abandoned threads. The social solution is to impart a shared experience near the same time. Crowd reviewed/commented news feeds are a strong example of this. Repeated Memes propagating through the Internet are another form of sharing (Rick Rolled).
Critical Social Mass
Then social media reaches critical mass (or it doesn't as in friendfeed's case). If everyone is on facebook, Twitter or Google Wave, you feel compelled to participate as well. If everyones using Google, you want to share in the way they view and experience the web. Sometimes you may not wish to participate but are forced to by outside pressures like work, or getting a party notifier. The strength of social media is that it leverages social ties and pulls in networks of people. Once users participate in the shared experiences, new communities form, and additional social networks emerge. But should businesses "own" our social networks? Should our connectivity to other like minds be dependent on a single corporate entity. There in lies the power of the Internet.
Redundant connections are now forming completely external to mainstream social sites. Identi.ca lives besides Twitter. Outside of Facebook, and Friendfeed open social protocols like Wave, and Blogs are propagating at a growing rate. But blogs suffer the solitary trouble of forums without critical traffic. Along come businesses/tools like Disqus and Js-kit that weave comments together. Let's not forget Dave Winer's RSSCloud which allows near realtime updates using only RSS feeds.
The Value is in the Crowd
The essential value of social sites and much of the web is based in the people that use the sites. An unvisited site may hold great informational content, but if it's abandoned the continued relevancy of it's data is in question. We are more likely to trust iterative Living sites supported by active development teams. If our group attention is the cornerstone of value in web media, why then aren't the crowds sharing in the wealth generated?