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Social media: revolution or same-o same-o?

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Yesterday, Paul Seamen published a long post on why he think social media does not pack the revolutionary punch celebrated by enthusiasts such as Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky and the leading lights in UK social media.

I must declare my position at the outset. I am a social media enthusiast. Rather than rebut any particular points in Paul’s long contrinution, I thought it better to print out his post, read it carefully, and try to get to the nub of what he is saying. After all, I don’t have to agree with him; but if I am serious about a career in social media and about espousing its potential to others, I should be able to explain positions other than my own.

So this is my attempt to disentangle what is new about social media

Paul makes an important point that we form institutions to bring together diverse groups of people to accomplish something together. We have schools which cater for all children in the neighbourhood. We have companies in which we can all buy shares.

The very nature of an institution is that it takes on a separate persona, recognized in law. A school can speak for itself. A company can speak for itself.

And the agents, or the Directors or the management or the front line staff, speak for the institution, not themselves. They leave their personal views at the door so to speak, because they speak of and for the common purpose.

It is their role to continuously interpret the institution’s purpose ‘faithfully and robustly’ in terms of the specifics of any situation in which they find ourselves.

An institution thus has a sharply different purpose than that of social media which is an essentially personal medium. In social media, each of us speaks for ourselves. There is an essential tension, therefore, between the purpose of social media and the purpose of any corporate communication.

If I have summarized Paul’s position correctly, then I agree, wholeheartedly. I teach management and related subjects for a living and this is the essence of what we teach. It is the essence of what we do as accountants, lawyers, etc. We run the collectives of contemporary life, and in that capacity, we represent the common purpose, not our own personal purpose.

What is the general position of social media mavens?

It is my general understanding that social media mavens are noticing the emergence of a new collective action – much as the commercial company emerged around the time of the South Sea Bubble. And they are describingtthe mechanics of those collectives as they emerge, piece-by-piece. Because the emerging forms are still very new, there is still a lot of experimentation, deliberate and accidental, and their observations take the form of “look at this, look at that” – a point that has already been made by Clay Shirky.

What is the debate?

The debate comes when we consider whether any of the old institutional forms will fade away. Will the old forms be displaced by the new forms?

Paul does not think so and I do not think the old forms will fade entirely either – for many reasons, one being that we won’t change what we are used to until we have to. Convents and monasteries still exist, after all.

What is the issue?

What matters for any one of us as individuals, or what matters for any institution or type of institution, is whether the institutions we work for or depend upon for income, will be displaced. What will their position be in the ecology of human purpose in five years, ten years, etc.?

My reasoning

There is an basic rule-of-thumb in management (and military) studies that broadly says theory doesn’t matter a toss.

In management-speak, we say that structure is contingent on circumstances. In the words of Sun Tzu, we say “Know the situation, know the circumstances”. In general military parlance, we say that “no plan survives meeting the enemy”. In short, we plan to pre-load relevant details into our heads so that we can act quickly and effectively in the cut-and-thrust of battle.

In short, we can talk in broad terms about what will happen but we have no way of knowing exactly. What counts is how we monitor unfolding events and how we position ourselves as events unfold. And as we are all jostling for positions that we believe to be advantageous to ourselves, what emerges is not the result of what any one of us wants, but what we all want , how well we play the game, and probably a large amount of happenstance.

This is my summation of the broad direction that social media is taking

Existing institutions

It is entirely likely that many of Paul’s clients will be largely untouched by social media . Their challenge is to think very carefully about the muddling of the personal voice, which has been made more clamorous with social media, and the institutional voice, which they are charged with expressing ‘faithfully and robustly’ on behalf of us all.

And they should attend to that with speed because the two are already well and truly muddled in public affairs.

New social movements

It is likely that other collective processes will emerge to aggregate the clamours personal voice enabled by social media, and it is the role of self-appointed community leaders to work out the responsibilities for the temporary and permanent associations that they stimulate and represent.

Examples of these processes include the tweeting of events like the Mumbai bombing and inadvertently providing the perpetrators with information; and tweeting in the Iranian elections and risking the ire of the prevailing authorities.

Emerging institutions

I increasingly suspect new types of institutions will emerge through social media . These institutions will be much the same as institutions that I described at the top of the post, at a very general level, but they will have been made possible by the technology of social media and they might change the relationships between people working within them.

I also think the profit-and-loss process might change. I’ll save discussions of these issues for other posts because these developments are embryonic anyway.

(This argument goes a beyond causing the destruction of old institutions by reducing transaction costs.)

My summary of the opportunities and imperatives of the social media age

To sum up, I agree with Paul that many large institutions formed in pre-social-media days will continue to exist for the reasons that they were formed. And I look forward to how they disentangle personal and institutional voice and start incorporating the essential precepts in the undergraduate curriculum. It is a fair test, I think, that they can layout out their principles clearly for a MGMT101 class.

I also think the Social Media crowd can help with this process and perhaps need to try to see the issues through the lens of the obligations of these institutions.

The work on social movements I find interesting, and as I have taken an active role in some effective social movements, I am happy to pass on any tips to people heading in that direction.

My main interest though is in the new institutional forms that are emerging:

  • New social media businesses
  • New markets for traditional businesses such as small town shops
  • New frontiers of competition for small towns and possibilities of strengthening local economics
  • Businesses (such as Boeing) who have re-jigged their business model to take advantage of the new communication possibilities
  • And the skills and roles in running these new enterprises including developments in commercial law.

I don’t know if I have summarized Paul’s position correctly. I hope he will comment. He makes a host of other points too.

And I don’t know if I have clarified anything for anyone else. That’s for you to say!

But I have benefited from trying to see the issues through Paul’s eyes.

Now let’s see if the debate continues to be productive.

Published in Business & Communities

One Comment

  1. Jo, this is a great and considered post. You have captured parts of my thinking well.

    I shall read your post again, but at first reading I think we actually agree on very many things.

    For the record: I’m not, and never been, hostile to social media. I remain optimistic that it will bring society benefits; I even think it has taken us forward already. However I’m an enemy of hype and nonsense that undermines either the PR trade I love or the society in which we live.

    You seem to have much to say on what social media could do. My gut instinct warms to much of your thinking (please send me a ping-back to my website – let’s stay in touch!)

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