Saturday, 22 June 2013

Social Lessons Learned Yesterday for the Businesses of Tomorrow

Whilst the ‘yammerization’ of the business enterprise continues unabated in the corporate sphere, promoted hard by new social enterprise software and services, one perhaps should take a little time to step back and contemplate some outcomes and lessons learned from the last decade and a half spent using social networks (I was using CompuServe back in 1995) online and how these could and may very well manifest themselves in the corporate environment of tomorrow. This isn't a technology issue, it is  more a human issue.

In no particular order:

1. The Rise and Fall of Social Volume: Many start out rapidly collecting personal connections to demonstrate esteem, appeal, importance and popularity (an audience) both to themselves and to others.  This provides early involvement of course. Inevitably, just like at college, people eventually also spent an awful lot of time filtering and ‘defriending’ people they really had no desire to be connected to until they end with a smaller (higher-connection-value) number of connections they (hopefully) actually share a positive connection with.

2. The Rise of Social Status: Didn’t we compare our own connection numbers (she has 2000 friends, 1500 twitter followers and 1200 connections) with those who had thousands and accept that some people have used their personal audience number as a basis for a value judgement about both us and them? Likewise haven't people actively seeked to share specific connections with others because some names became synonymous with inclusion, acceptance, quality, one-upmanship and status. Getting a high-value connection tells everyone something about you no? (said with much irony of course).

3. The Collapse of Consequence: The process of the ‘disconnect’ has taught people how to mistreat social connections with a general lack of consequence. This can apply to anything from upsetting and annoying someone at a distance due to accidental or deliberately provocative comments and contents through to an active removal from a group or personal connection list. With almost no direct consequence at all  there is typically no face-to-face contact and no reason at all to explain. People have learned not only to disconnect but then to block to ensure the risk of consequence is removed. 

4. The Rise of Selective Use: Over time most people have discovered a specific value-proposition for a social network that they find most comfortable engaging with. For some it is to contact relatives, for others it is to build an active social circle and for others it is to build an audience for their products, agenda, opinions and views. However where two people who are connected do share different value propositions for the same shared social service, so the risk of aggravation and potential disconnection can ensue due to lack of shared goals.

5. The Growth of the Social Bully: The school yard all too often descends on a social network, promoting those with the loudest voices and most aggressive opinions who therefore rise to the fore ('social bullies' perhaps) whilst the novice, the shy, the less-opinionated, the weak, the bullied and the ‘quiet ones’ either watch from the side lines or quietly melt away into the background. Social network groups can rapidly become the voice for the few and aggression can come into play, particularly due to the perceived lack of consequence. This leads to two outcomes, 1. gossiping & voyeurism, and 2. disenfranchisement and drop-out (to be added and then to be ignored or wise, picked on) neither of which are typically constructive

6. The Rise of the Social Celebrity: Self-glorification, self-promotion and the rise of the social celebrity becomes aligned with the social bully where someone is either included in the ‘club’ by way of connection (inclusion) or they are not. Note how often a thumb-up feature is included to allow someone to ask to be included, through demonstrable agreement but without a similar thumb-down feature to demonstrate disapproval. The day Facebook allowed the concept of sub grouping is also the very moment its universal democratic foundations died because everyone being an equal within a group was conceptually removed. Social networks can and do create the self-defined super hero and by their very nature, as a result they can and do also create outcasts and accentuate the feeling of being a misfit due to not belonging.

7. The Promotion of the Myth: People have witnessed how to sell the lie, also known as the myth. Social networks have been fast educators in the process of self-aggrandizement at the behest of the fact and truth, where everyone could self-market, adjust and modify facts and be famous for 15 minutes or longer if they can sustain brand-x. Why tell the truth when a person could visibly manipulate it to define a new self-image if not re-invent themselves completely. Self-branding has become an almost de facto social state for many to the extent that the basis of fact appears to be almost irrelevant when self-profiling. Inevitably therefore some will actively choose to reject social networks where the volume of artificial branding of individuals appears high.

8. The Rise of Statement & Filtration: Twitter is mostly a series of short statements and announcements rather than a conversation. Social has showed people how to push information rather than collaborate like a constant PR machine. People have learned to post (share) photos, comments, statements, advertisements, infomercials, humor and anything else they wanted to. However people have also learned to filter responses in case others were watching who they seek to influence. People have learned to  govern who can reply, what can be said, when it can be said and which inconvenient replies will be removed. If are person's responses are filtered they are highly unlikely to contribute again.

9. The Use of Collaboration as Self-Promotion: It’s not what you say, it’s the fact that you said it at all. Social has demonstrated collaboration not in terms of two-way communication but often in terms of one-way self-promotion. People have learned to comment on other people’s posts not because it has raised the level of the conversation but because it promoted the contributor by association. "I liked a post because people can see it is me and I am now aligned with the topic and its point." This  one-way PR tactic can also be said of those opening a conversational topic. This is why it can be noted that conversational replies receive little actual direct feedback because the reply itself is irrelevant and often means “hi, I’m here promoting my self-brand and positioning myself. Remember me?”

10. The Rise of Communication Without Rules: Social has appeared to define new rules of engagement in communication without anything actually being written down.  Social/cultural rules are often set through evolving social group leadership defining what is and isn't acceptable (do you always post on their wall or do they come to you?) where the few who communicate the most, or are the most popular or deemed of the highest social value and status have set the agenda and rules and everyone else has chosen to follow whilst copying that style of engagement. Without knowing the rules people have learned it is easy to break the rules in a social network and then be castigated or ignored for accidental breach of etiquette which may lead them to retire from it altogether.

11. The Rise of Variable Exclusion without Reason: In the context of a social network people have learned to ignore and can be ignored and be disenfranchised instantly. This affects behaviour and the style of communication and approach to dialogue. One day a person may be popular, the next they are not, without reason. A person thought they were being funny, rebellious, controversial, happy and collaborative only to discover their most recent involvement or collaborative effort was not welcome as there was a hidden agenda and the subject was meant for certain individuals, observers or a sub-audience in particular that did not actually include the person doing the responding.

12. The Growth of Instant Judgement & Sentence: As above people have learned it is possible to judge and be judged and criticised in  a public arena and often be judged by a silent majority with very few facts made available. By contributing to a thread the person may be unwittingly setting themselves up for silent comment and judgement from an unseen audience with an associated sentence which itself may have longer-term, unforeseen consequences.

13. The Decrease in the Desire to Share: A great irony is that social networks have demonstrated a long term reduction in the desire to share. By over-sharing early, people have frequently later rejected sharing altogether due to the abuse by others in the power-play or balance of sharing. However much some people want to know everything, people have also eventually learned to dislike revealing too much about who they are and what they know to a general audience who have themselves failed to reciprocate in kind.

14. The Growth of Voyeurism: For many, social networks have decreased bi-directional communication rather than increased it. This may have occurred because after an initial peak of interactivity people could read enough about an individual and their associated current situation so as not to need to 'catch up' in person which in turn has increased the time between actual positive, social human contact and often by a long period. For anyone who has managed a collaborative group they will know that the challenge is to keep a group going with only one or two long-term contributors whilst everyone else receives rather than gives.

One of the primary reasons why older groups of social network users have increasingly cut down their use of some social networks is simply that people have started to feel that their connections were beginning to know too much about their daily life without sharing anything in return or communicating (yes I knew you had been to Singapore, I read it on Facebook 6 months ago). Social networks are often therefore seen as becoming too voyeuristic to be comfortable over time which in turn decreases the desire to share.

15. The Harsh Impact on Time: For some people social networks have started taking up far too much of their valuable time, partly die to its speed and dynamism as well as instant gratification. People have found themselves being far too distracted from real life activities and tasks to read and observe what is largely mundane posts about what others are doing, often with little actual positive outcome or relevancy. For some people social networks have become more of an addiction than is positive.

16. The Rise of Misinterpretation: Human communication is a complex strata of facial, body and vocal inflection. Let us not forget that over 80% of communication is non verbal! However in the world of technological communication if one needs to keep to a small number of words then explanations will inevitably suffer and inflection and body language will simply be non-existent. Whatever did happen to video conferencing anyway? Social networks have demonstrated people’s ability to misinterpret thoughts, actions and deeds to new levels that could in some instances be the difference between life and death. Short text statements without deeper explanations have too frequently been taken as fact and interpreted in ways that were not meant to be (the time, the inference, the words used, the punctuation or lack of etc.). Text-based misinterpretation can and does lead to conflict, annoyance, anger and further disconnection, often needlessly. Evidence for this is widespread through almost two decades of SMS misinterpretation.

17. The Sharing of Information without Permission: Many people have discovered, particularly with regards to the sharing of information (e.g. via photo-tagging), that information that was not meant to be shared, has been shared, often too easily, too quickly and without the informant understanding the repercussions of their rather instant actions or without the permission of the person the post has affected most. Worse still, information that has now been shared cannot easily be redacted, if at all. 

18. The Rise of Opinion as Fact: Social networks have showed people new ways of taking personal viewpoints, thoughts and ideas and presenting them as definitive facts, which they frequently are not. By gaining some degree of collusion from collaborative connections through alliances (e.g. thumbed-up likes), others may be driven to believe or accept that posted viewpoints presented as definitive facts are indeed facts which could easily mislead others.

19. The Rise of Crowd Opinion: The old saying goes that the worst vice is advice. Social networks have for some created dependencies on group opinions which offer little actual value and could even prove divisive or harmful. Remember the phrase - the courage of one's convictions. Rather than getting on with life, some people have started to seek the voice of the group to make their decisions for them. In turn group or crowd opinion could be used to affect and alter individual thought, actions and moods. This process could start to undermine the sense of the individual by creating a dependency of the collective viewpoint which itself may include hidden agendas and detract from the franchisement of the individual, particularly where the group expects to make the final decision. Many will argue that social networks drive creativity but with crowd approval required, the opposite can and does occur and creativity can be stifled just as much.

20. The Rise of the Anti-Social Hero: Social networks may have unwittingly started to demonstrate two parallel worlds; those who have joined in and those who have now actively chosen to step off. Increasingly those who have actively opted-out of a social network are seen to be the ones who have taken control and ownership of their own real personas by demonstrating they don’t need social and have better things to do. This inevitably starts a trend in others and can polarise opinion that may end up at its worst as a kind of gang mentality.

21. The Inadequacy of Social in All Things: As social is seen to be unstructured so it follows that it knows no boundaries. People have started to learn that social networks at times do not have all the answers to all aspects of the human condition. Sometimes, quite awkwardly, we have not yet evolved with social tools to know what even remains unresolved. For example, when someone dies, do people in the same social group ‘defriend’ that person, ‘disconnect’ them or would their profile be memorialized and then what?

22. The Rise of the Taker and Self-Educator: Many social networks have become increasingly unbalanced over time, with the most active contributors consistently providing the most content whilst the silent majority taking away the most information for the purposes of their own information-gathering and self-education agendas. Whilst this is frequently dressed as a 'community-approach' people have seen time and time again that the greatest contributors frequently drop away eventually due to gradual resentment that they have gained little overall from their contributions. Whilst it is certainly the case that communities can be powerful ways of gathering knowledge through unhindered contribution, indicators show there is a parallel risk that posted-opinion is viewed by bystanders as a quick route or short-cut to self-education without formal investment in time, effort and structured learning which can itself prove inadequate in the long term and gradually undermines the purpose of the social network itself.


These are just some of the more obvious lessons many have taken from the last decade or more. in using social networks. As new versions of what we think of as ‘social networks’ are released, so we are faced with numerous new dilemmas which we have to find corresponding answers to depending on the services they provide people with. Importantly, outside of work the way we choose to interact with social networks is a personal choice because, after all, these are services we personally choose to be involved with and there is probably something personally in it for us.

Once someone takes a decision to place a social network (or social tools) within a business context the subjects may change but the issues listed above do not go away at all. The issues may indeed become exacerbated due to the fact that the social enterprise is no longer a wholly personal choice with a personal value-proposition. Whilst there are an increasing number of interesting drivers for social technologies and techniques in business environments to assist in collaborative activities, human behavior and the lessons learned to date really must be taken on board and incorporated into a larger strategy at the earliest convenience. Simply instructing people to share their thoughts and ideas by using social tools in a business context is highly unlikely to succeed in isolation in the long term and inevitably people may simply choose to drop out.

Perhaps it is the human condition to be interested in something new, be excited then get involved and then inevitably drop out, all in a cyclical way. If this is the case, the longevity of social technology in business is far from guaranteed. However by heeding the lessons learned above and by anticipating them, embracing them and by acknowledging the way people actually do behave when using social technologies outside of work  so an organisation may have a far greater chance of social success inside of work.

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