Not many born before 1990 would argue with the assertion that, in our lifetime, the Internet has changed just about everything. Here are a few examples:

  • Postal mail (“snail mail”) is well on the way to obsolescence. The United States Postal Service projects that First-Class Mail will decline by 35% by 2020. All types of mail (including junk mail) will decline by 30%.
  • The number of print newspaper readers is falling like a rock, and the industry is in serious crisis, indicated by bankruptcy filings, interested sellers with no interested buyers and plummeting stock values.
  • The phone book (and yellow pages) has virtually vanished from existence.
  • Two words – online dating.

A list of fundamental societal changes brought about by the Internet could go on and on.
Almost no one would deny the profundity of that change. But even more profound is the fundamental change of the Internet that is well underway, though some still don’t recognize it.

I’m talking about social media. It’s not just a fad or something that your grandchildren do. It’s what some have called “the biggest shift since the Industrial Revolution.

Facebook is about a decade old. YouTube started in 2005. But a surprising number of people over age 40 still “don’t do Facebook,” or “don’t do social media.” Why is this surprising? Consider this:

  • As of April 2015, Facebook currently has 1.44 billion “monthly active” users.
  • If it were a country, Facebook would be the most populace country on earth – ahead of both China and India.
  • It’s still growing much faster than both – Facebook has added 220 million users since July 2014, which is an annual growth rate of more than 15%. China, by contrast, is reportedly growing at a rate of about 0.01%. India’s growth rate is at about 2.3%.
  • Facebook is available in 70+ languages.
  • 65% of Facebook’s active monthly users log-in every day.

Ok, so Facebook is by far the largest online social network. Still not convinced you should care? Let’s look at some statistics from another popular social media outlet – YouTube.

  • More than 1 billion unique users visit YouTube each month.
  • The number of hours of video watched on YouTube is measured in the hundreds of millions per day, and 50% more than last year.
  • 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
  • YouTube is available in 61 languages.

I was an early adopter of social media. I had a MySpace account! By 2006, MySpace had 100 million users and, as recently as 2008, it was considered the leading online social network. By mid-2013, MySpace was scrambling for its survival, overtaken by its rival, Facebook. But, a recent study concluded that many young people are eschewing Facebook because their parents and grandparents are now active Facebookers. So Facebook is constantly scrambling to re-invent itself too (see below) – and avoid the fate of MySpace. The pace of change in the world of social media is breathtaking.

As a result, in less than 10 years, social media has risen from nothing and already transformed from what it originally was. And it’s transforming all over again, and even faster. It’s likely to be something else altogether in another five years. What social media is, and what it’s becoming, is changing everything.

The scope of change is too widespread to capture in a single article, but consider just a few anecdotes, then watch the video at the end of this post if you’re still not bought in:

  • Social media is fundamentally changing the way people communicate, starting with a generation of young people, currently in their teens and early 20s, who have grown up with social media. Although most of these young people actually have an email address, the vast majority don’t use email as their primary or even secondary form of communication, or even at all. Many colleges and universities stopped assigning institution-based email addresses to students a long time ago, because most college freshman “already have well-established digital identities before they arrive on campus.” Texting from a cell phone is obviously widespread, but communication via a social media platform – like Instagram, Snapchat or Yik Yak – is growing much faster. A couple of years ago, my then 14-year-old daughter broke her arm, requiring surgery. A teenager with a broken arm – that’s not a particularly novel thing. But what is absolutely astonishing is the speed with which the fact of this injury traveled around our combined social networks, and beyond, without either one of us ever dialing a phone number or sending an email. With me using Facebook and my daughter using Instagram, the news of her injury, complete with photos, was communicated to well more than 1000 people within 3 hours. She was literally lying on a hospital gurney, with a broken but splinted arm, taking “selfies” and shooting them out to her hundreds of “followers” on Instagram. Each of us got responses from literally hundreds of people within 24 hours. This kind of power is why in 2013 the founder of Snapchat, at the tender age of 23, famously turned down a $3 billion offer for his company from Facebook, and then a $4 billion offer from Google a month later. And it turned out to be a wise move, because Snapchat is now worth 4-5 times that much.
  • It’s turning ordinary people into “experts.” Take, for example, my summer vacation with my children in 2012. We went to New York and spent a week taking in the sights of the Big Apple. Much to my children’s annoyance, I “checked in” on Facebook just about everywhere we went and with everything we did – the Empire State Building, the 9/11 Memorial, the Staten Island Ferry, lunch at the Central Park Boathouse or Carnegie Deli, Broadway shows, and on and on. I just did this for fun. What I never imagined is that my friend in Dallas was planning her own trip to New York with her children later that summer. Did she buy the latest guide book to learn the list of “must see”sights in the City that Never Sleeps? No. She just followed the path that I had marked out on Facebook! She and her children did everything we did. We all had a great time.
  • It’s creating fame and fortune out of nothing. If you’ve never seen the story of how Justin Bieber got discovered by posting videos on YouTube, you should. Regardless of what you think about his music, his story is an amazing tale of the power of social media.
  • Ordinary people are using it to create their own “brand.” Forget about Justin Bieber. What about Acacia Clark? You’re probably saying, “Who is Acacia Clark?” Well, she’s a 17-year-old girl who is perhaps the best example of what it means to become “Instafamous.” Known on Instagram by her username – Acacia Brinley – she has nearly 2 million followers. What’s she famous for? Nothing in particular. She started out at age 13 or so posting “selfies” on another social media site – tumblr. Hundreds of selfies. Maybe thousands. Nothing graphic or distasteful. Just pictures of herself with stuffed animals, or making funny faces, or with “kitty kat” make-up on. She’s a pretty young girl by most standards, but she’s not Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren. Nonetheless, she started attracting attention. She began posting videos on YouTube – things like make-up tutorials or other mindless drivel – and attracting tens of thousands of views. By the time she moved to Instagram, she was already a social media phenomenon. In essence, her persona went viral. Acacia Brinley Clark has become her own “brand.” She now has her own YouTube channel, and every video gets hundreds or thousands or even millions of view. She’s so “Instafamous,” in fact, that a little known band of no account called “Watercolor,” struggling to make a name for itself since at least 2002, recruited her as their lead singer. You can judge her singing talent for yourself. But what you can’t deny is her fame. The results of mixing Acacia’s Instafame with Watercolor’s eye for opportunity? The band’s first release with Acacia – “Stick Around” – debuted in 2014 at No. 31 on iTunes U.S. Chart (No. 33 on the Canadian Chart).
  • Now the social media heavyweights are getting into the business of selling something other than ads. Both Twitter and Facebook have been testing “buy” buttons on their platforms since last year, and there is no doubt this will soon be rolled out full-scale on both platforms. Pinterest just added its own buy button last month. So now you will not only see an ad for a product while on social media, but you will also be able to immediately add it to your social media shopping cart and buy it.
  • The next logical step, of course, is that social media platforms have added mobile payments functions. Snapchat was first, but then Facebook added this feature just a couple of months ago. Other social media sites either have similar functionality already or are planning to add it. Right now, this feature is just a way to send money between friends. But, longer term, this sets up social media as a potential payment network that competes with, or even outpaces, the current payment card network. There are currently about 109 million Visa card holders in the U.S. Facebook alone, however, has more than 200 million monthly active users. Can you imagine a world where your mobile device, via your favorite social media app, is the only payment system you need? Mark Zuckerberg already has.

The point is that social media is a force unto itself, and if you’re in any kind of business, you simply must reckon with it. It’s changing everything, and it’s changing at breakneck speed.

If, up until now, you’ve been content to bury your head in the sand and declare that you “don’t do social media,” it’s time to reconsider. In fact, it’s past time.

If your business doesn’t have a social media strategy, 2015 is the year to start. Seek top management buy-in and brainstorming on measurable business objectives, assemble a diverse team from a cross-section of your business (this is not just an IT or marketing issue), listen to your customers, set a course, and join the revolution.

*see video here