On Sunday 1st May 2011, Barack Obama announced that Osama Bin-Laden had been killed. The strike against his compound in Pakistan was tweeted before it was televised. The thing is, Al-Qaida was already looking irrelevant after the “Arab Spring” - the social-media enabled revolutions that occurred throughout the Middle-East in early 2011.
With a heartfelt video posted online earlier this year, 26 year old Asmaa Mahfouz effectively managed to spark a series of public protests in Egypt that would unseat the country’s corrupt and brutal presidency.
Tools like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube don’t topple governments, but they certainly can help connect, organize and inspire the people who do.
The phenomenon of Social Media is revolutionary in the truest sense. Citizens, Consumers and Communities can now organize without “organizations”. It is an issue, then, that Organizations need to take very seriously.
Trifles, Truths and Trends
While Social Media may seem to some to be a bunch of online websites and mobile applications, it is in fact a cultural phenomenon that is coming to define our times.
These websites have all emerged as a result of the convergence between people’s fundamental social needs and a host of enabling technologies - the founders didn’t invent online social media, they responded to an emerging trend with well-designed database-backed websites that made it easier for people to do what they already wanted to do.
It’s useful to distinguish between the tools that we use, and the trends that enable their use. Making this distinction will ensure that we invest our effort in ways that are meaningful as opposed to simply ‘cool’. To make this clear, try consider Social Media in terms of Trifles, Trends and Truths:
Trifles are fashionable at a particular time, but aren’t likely to represent a major societal shift by themselves. In the product world this could be something like skinny jeans - it might seem like a great idea right now, but in time that feeling will pass. The technical world is filled with trifles - thousands of websites and applications that are launched every month, each one promising to be the next big thing. Trifles are here today gone tomorrow. Even giant companies like Facebook and Twitter could be seen as Trifles, because there are no guarantees that they’ll be around in a couple of years - we’ve certainly seen many other large companies come and go in recent years.
Trends are more sustainable shifts in commerce and culture than any particular company or product can represent. Whereas YouTube.com may be a Trifle, Social Media and people’s capability and desire to share their perspectives online is a Trend. The trend is large, millions of people and thousands of companies are behind it, and it’s likely to shape the way we all do things over the coming years.
Truths underpin and enable any trend. The closer a Trifle or Trend is aligned with a human Truth, the more likely it is to be sustainable. The human truth of Social Media is that people are fundamentally social. People’s need to connect with each other is almost as high up as the survival instinct. Combine this powerful natural driver with web-based tools to enable social connection with mobile devices that connect seamlessly to the web, and you have the makings of a major behavioral shift. People are responding compulsively to the opportunity to do social grooming whenever and wherever.
The idea is to align why you use technologies to the truths (and this is the most important work you can do), what you do to the trends, and how you do it to the trifles.
The use of mobile phones is a particularly interesting trend to pay attention to. Smart phones - that enable web browsing and applications - grant us the wherever, whenever access to our social networks that we so compulsively desire.
The first mobile social-network was your phone’s contact list, and it was every bit as revolutionary as Facebook’s social graph - if not more so. The contact list in the phone in your pocket accompanies you to work, and the work-places of your “friends” (I use inverted commas because we all know how far the definition of “friend” is stretched in social media). The effect of which is to blur the boundaries between our social-lives and our work-lives. No need to deny you use your phone, however occasionally, for personal communication while at work - the research shows that we all do it.
The thing is that your work life is probably creeping into your social life too. Email is no-longer confined to your desktop. Thanks to mobile devices it now follows you around to dates, lines at the supermarket, and even holidays.
In this way we are digital nomads: mobility allows us to roam with our economic and social structure carried with us in tiny digital caravans. We’re seeing the enterprisation of our social lives, and the socialisation of our enterprises.
Companies around the world have blocked Social Media access at work, because it’s seen as an unproductive waste of time. However, as we all know - with the rise of smart-phones, people are accessing Social Media media at the office anyway.
The good news, though, is that research conducted at the University of Melbourne has shown that a certain amount of free web browsing is actually conducive to productivity, as long as it doesn’t take up more than 20% of our day.
This blurring of boundaries can have a host of unforeseen consequences. For one thing, there’s a general sense that we are all more busy and distracted than ever before. There’s always something demanding our attention.
Multitasking has gone to another level. Tabbed browsing online, multiple applications running on your computer, and people contacting you on various devices and channels - everything urgent, everything “real-time”. While media multi-tasking may have seemed like a good idea some-time in the 90’s, it was clearly a trifle, because subsequent research has shown that it may have adverse affects on memory and brain function.
Do you ever get anxious when looking at your email? You could be suffering from “Email Apnea” - the tendency to hold your breath when dealing with an over-full inbox. This nasty little unconscious habit activates your sympathetic nervous system to kick-in the fight-or-flight response - so your poor body thinks it’s being chased by a mammoth animal while you’re just sitting at your desk. This is generally experienced as “stress”, which by the way can make you fat.
A simple way to deal with this overload is to just force yourself to single-task. Commit uninterrupted time to complete work tasks, enjoy short guilt-free social-media breaks between, and take regular “tech-free” sabbaticals on holidays and weekends.
Social Media and Reputation
Time-wasting is perhaps the least of company worries when it comes to social-media. With entire organizations connecting to the outside world publicly, the potential for PR blunders, Wikileak-type scandals, and general impropriety is greatly enhanced.
Qantas Airlines discovered this earlier this year when their share price was significantly affected by a false rumour that emerged on Twitter. The hard-earned lesson, in words of their CEO, Alan Joyce: "In this modern day and age with social media, you have to be responsive immediately. You have to be out there with the facts very fast, so it's changing the whole dynamic and speed to market that organisations like Qantas have to respond to."
It’s not just companies that need to be mindful of social media. It has become standard hiring practice to do a Google search on someone before hiring them. Have you Googled yourself? What comes up there is colloquially called your “Google CV” - the contemporary alternative to the paper version. If you want to take control of the impression you make online, the best advice I can give you is to ask yourself if you’d be happy for your boss or clients to see what you’re uploading. If not, don’t post it.
Clearly it’s not possible to stop people from using social media, so the most viable response seems to be simply to educate people on responsible online activity. Forward-thinking companies have drafted official Social Media guidelines for staff, along with ongoing training to help people use these powerful tools responsibly, professionally, and sustainably.
One of the fears that people have with all this online use is that Big Brother is watching us, but with all our millions of tiny cell-phone cameras, tweets and wikis, the bigger story is that we are now watching Big Brother.
With the explosion of information available online - much of it unreliable - we have become far more skeptical consumers.The true currency of the web today is Trust. And Trust is built over time by aligning what is said with what is done.
Ultimately, social media is not just a communications channel that can be managed and controlled. It is a not a set of technologies to be mastered, it is a cultural reality to be engaged with. It promises to expose the corrupt and reveal the extraordinary, and if nothing else it is to guaranteed to keep us on our toes. It is chaotic, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. So the best social media strategy, then, is not a strategy at all, it is to be purposeful, ethical, and transparent and let our communications and behaviours flow from that.
If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in a course I'm running in July for UCT Graduate School of Business: Nomadic Leadership