The War on Social Media

Posted on August 7th 2009

For those of us old enough to remember the unfinished American "power to the people" cultural revolution of the late 1960s, there are signs that history is about to repeat itself.   The drums have been sounding for months now but they are getting louder and closer. Social media and its most attractive features--mass availability, transparency and free accessibility--are under attack from a powerful coalition of unwilling entrenched interests who have no intention of ceding control of their messages or their bottom lines to crowds, wise or otherwise.  

This week's news that ESPN has barred its employees from  tweeting without permission and that the U.S. Marine Corps has joined China in banning Twitter (throwing in Facebook and MySpace for good measure) are simply the latest examples of a crackdown by the permanent establishment that has been going on for months at less visible organizations.  There will be plenty more to come.  

To believers and practitioners of traditional top-down, command-and-control, for-me-to-know-and-you-to-find-out management (which is to say most of the people who run large organizations—even those who talk a good participatory game), Twitter, blogs, and social networking sites are not opportunities but IEDs littered along the road to organizational stability.     

And they are not entirely wrong.  Coming to the office one morning and discovering that overnight a couple of employees have posted a hilarious video to YouTube of themselves putting boogers in the hamburger patties can't be that much fun.  And, let's face it, there is no good business reason for most employees to use Twitter or Facebook on company time.  

As much as the dreamers would like to think so, large-scale adoption of the architectures of participation is simply not going happen inside enterprises because that would represent a revolutionary change in organizational dynamics.  Giving lots of individuals a voice and audience through a networked platform forces decisionmaking to be more transparent, democratic and consensus-based.   In my experience, most leaders do not want to operate their organizations as experiments in democracy so it's not going to happen. 

What will happen instead--and is already happening--is that social media will become one more tool in the marketing/pr/communications toolbox.  An important tool, but basically one more channel to be "managed"    Official Twitterers will be designated and scripted.  There will be no Scobles starting unapproved blogs under the radar. A lot of the spontaneity and diversity will disappear.  

Like the student protesters of the 60s who left behind their visions of a better world in favor of a law degree and an American Express card, social media idealists will fade into the sunset.  

You heard it here first.  The revolution will be co-opted. 

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Comments

Posted on August 7th 2009 at 12:49AM
Thanks for the thoughtful comments.  I largely agree with you, Justin, that the internet has produced disruptive technologies that allow individuals to circumvent the normal distribution channels--if they are willing to take the risk.  A 20-second clip that made it out of Iran yesterday showed thousands of people marching to protest I'm-a-Dinner-Jacket's swearing in.  What made it truly remarkable was that they were all holding cellphones aloft taping the procession as they marched.  They seemed to be saying to the authorities "you can stop some of the messengers but you can't stop the message. There are too many of us.  At least one of us will get this video to the outside world."  I disagree slightly with your characterization of newspapers; they are, indeed, in the distribution business and that part of the model is becoming increasingly irrelevant.  But, they are also in the news gathering and vetting business and in the nasty world of online political propaganda, someone has to try to be the trusted arbiter of what's true and what's not.  That part of journalism is more crucial than ever.  
DannyBrown
Posted on August 7th 2009 at 12:40PM
Social media has always just been a tool, Jerry. It's not this life-changing medium that media and advertising and the likes have been waiting for; it's simply part of that process, but one that makes communication just a little bit easier.

I see ESPN and the US Marines as simply setting employee guidelines. Much like any employer does on any given day offline as well. Certain companies like employees to behave in a certain manner. Is this right or wrong? That depends on your point of view.

I don't think it's a "war" on social media as much as it's a reminder that, like it or not, if you work for a company you have to represent them properly at all times. If ESPN and the US Marines feel this is by regulated use (or non-use) of social media, fair enough.


SteveDodd
Posted on August 13th 2009 at 10:07PM
Although I agree that many companies are begining to experiment with the Social Web at work. However, there will be a breaking point when security breaches through questionable systems cause networks to fail, personal data to be stolen and corporate intel leaked. We went through the same pattern as the internet itself evolved through Web 1.0.  Once the experimentation is done, things will settle into a good blend of social responsibility and corporate governance.  And then, when Web 3.0 hits, we'll be at it all over again.
RichardStacy
Posted on August 14th 2009 at 10:26AM
Jerry,

 You are right in that companies and governments will try to co-opt and contain social media.  However, in line with Justin's comment, they will ultimately find that the social media revolution can't be contained.  This is because the shift inherenent in social media is enormous - it is the separation of content from its means of distribution ( http://richardstacy.com/what-is-social-media/ ) and the emergence of as whole new way of managing and mediating information as a result.  This will be a way based around process, rather than institutions ( http://richardstacy.com/2009/06/05/andrew-keens-head-and-the-shift-from-... )- which is why the process of journalism will remain important (as you say) but it is wrong to say this will be the responsibily of journalists and/or the media institutions that are their homes.

Clay Shirky has looked at the whole question of suppression / co-option of social media - primarily by governments.  His conclusion - the only way to do it is to turn off the internet - which is, of course, the approach the Chinese government has taken at times.  Restriction of access to the network is therefore where the real threat lies.