Mathias Rust's Cessna on Red Squre in front of the Kremlin

The question of what we did before Social Media often sounds like the one about TV, cars, email and the telephone. Yet this morning, I came across a real-life example that drove the answer home to me in a viscerally powerful way.

Back in 1986 the world looked tensely on as Russia and the US battled it out on a summit in Reykjavik that had the potential to bring about real change in the East/West – Capitalism/Communism deadlock. The summit ended in a stalemate with no real change happening. Today Twitter would be abuzz with #politicalfail hashtags as the elected representatives of the US and their Russian counterparts were held up to ridicule. 

There would be social media posts from both sides of the Berlin Wall, dividing what is now Germany to East and West and Google Plus and Facebook and there would be websites where petitions could be signed, demanding that something be done and this ridiculous stalemate that threatened the liberties and freedoms of millions, be resolved.

Back then, of course, none of the social media platforms were available. The world was still silo-ed, media was a top-down affair that demanded we consumed the news they gave us (which seems so quant now) and politicians were accountable to none outside election times when they’d shamelessly pander to our vote.

As a 19-year-old German boy by the name of Mathias Rust put it: "I thought every human on this planet is responsible for some progress and I was looking for an opportunity to take my share in it.” The sentiment, voiced a quarter of a century ago appears remarkably social media-friendly and very much what powers many of us in the digital landscape.

Without Social Media the Choices are Few

As hard as it is to imagine a world without the push-and-pull of social media it’s harder still to imagine the sense of powerlessness that most people felt at the time and, even worse, the lack of information that was the norm. With no email, Twitter, or internet, TV and newspapers became the primary channels through which information flowed. Just as these had a high entry barrier for anyone who might wish to start one, there was an equally high entry barrier to taking action.

The 80s was a time of high idealism. Teens and students everywhere (yours truly included) were considering just how to save the world from itself and as my own experience indicates, there were no shortages of radical, drastic solutions.

For Mathias Rust, a recently qualified, Cessna the question was more than academic because he had what would turn out to be the best prop of all: a plane. And he decided to use it.

Daring Stunt Lands Cessna in Red Square

The news of Mathias Rust’s daring flight that took him through the Soviet Union’s air defenses and landed him in Red Square, outside the Kremlin, was reported on all news channels and on newspapers and magazines around the world.  

It was such an audacious stunt that it took a while for many of us to actually quantify its importance and, as it turns out, we had serious underestimated its impact which accelerated the rate of change within a dying Soviet Union and ushered in a new, more open world. What makes it truly important and the 80s equivalent of a social media moment is that Rust’s action was as catalytic, in its own way, as the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, that started the Arab Spring.

So, I guess, the answer to the question of what did we do before social media is given by the facts: either very little of real consequence and value or embarked upon outrageous stunts, likely to get us into trouble, the real impact of which would not be quantifiable for decades after they had happened.

What You Missed

What It Takes to Save the World
The Transparency of Social Media
Collaboration Economy: How Digital Culture Unleashes Value
Was JFK the First Social Media President?
Game On! How Digital is Breaking Down Barriers
How Do You Deal With Doubt?

External Links

Mathias Rust – German Teenager Who Landed on Red Square
The Berlin Wall
Mohamed Bouazizi