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A Response – Debating the Importance of Social Media in Civic Life

My friend and colleague Gadi Ben-Yahuda posted a bit of a challenge to me today, based on a conversation we had over email. Ever the social beasts, Gadi and I have corresponded over email, Google video chat, on GovLoop, on his most excellent blog over at the Center for the Business of Government, and once – just once – over coffee, as part of my interviewing process prior to joining IBM. So neither of us are strangers to, nor hostile to, emerging technologies.

In his role as Social Media Director, Gadi is placing himself today on the thoughtful sideline coached currently by Peter Shankman, who said recently that he would never hire a “Social Media Expert.” Gadi’s thesis: Social media is not new, and merely continues our adaptation of our world to our social needs. He is reacting to the spate of videos that tell us statistics such as that three of every five gay couples meet online, or that Facebook is the third largest “nation.” He would like to remind us that these statistics are interesting, but not illuminating. Social media is just another communications technology, likened to Paine’s pamphlets, and does not, in itself, increase civic behavior. (Also standing on the sideline with Shankman and Gadi is Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote last year in the New Yorker that real revolutions are not found on Facebook or Twitter.)

Like most debates, there is a lot of truth to my colleague’s argument, along with those of his merry band of curmudgeons. We have always leveraged technologies to advance our development and maintenance of our overlapping social systems. In this, Gadi is correct – or at least, I agree.

What the Curmudgeons fail to appreciate is the network effect. Saying social media is merely the digitization of analog processes is akin to saying that the advent of broadcast television did nothing more than add millions of voyeurs to people who were already sitting around a table talking, or taking the stage in the Catskills. The opportunity for a large segment of our population to see and hear the same information simultaneously eventually changed the face of entertainment, politics, and leisure time. For better or worse, television changed the national discourse. The changes were not overnight, of course, as early entertainment on television was provided by vaudevillians and experiences that copied the theater metaphor. However, the White House was (properly) concerned when they “lost Walter Cronkite” during the Vietnam War. The social upheavals of the 1960s persisted, in part, because they permeated the national consciousness more rapidly than previous episodes of civil unrest.

Social media provides a mechanism for disintermediation – both physical and temporal. Telling me that Facebook is the “third largest country” is trivia, telling me three of every five gay couples meet online tells me something about the effects on our society. In a country that has yet to recognize marriage equality, our gay family and friends are able to find one another more easily, thanks to social media.

My friend Gadi laughs (I’ve heard him) at anyone who believes that 700 million people on Facebook amounts to a revolution. He is correct, yet again, but misses that the fact that Ghana’s vice president, John Dramani Mahama, is on Facebook. Actively interacting with his citizens. One young person asked Mahama recently why he didn’t decentralize control of the nation’s water system, as a response to the inefficiencies in the current system. “Within weeks of receiving the Facebook post on the Ghana Water Company Limited, [VP] Mahama was holding news conferences recommending that his country decentralize water, which he predicted would help the health of citizens and the economy.” In this case, as with so many others, Facebook isn’t what matters; what matters is the disintermediation effect of the platform. Would this young person have been heard by his national leadership without the social media connection?

Gladwell bemoaned the lack of effort involved in “engaging” with social media, arguing that true revolutions involve sitting quietly in a Woolworth’s diner, day after day, waiting to be served and seen as human. True, but it is this ease of engagement that led the young Ghanaian to ask his Vice President to consider a different approach to a thorny problem. The young man did not need to learn how to engage in civic affairs, he simply found his nation’s leaders on a common platform and asked a question. Which may lead to a significant civic effect.

When we consider new technologies, there is always a tendency to consider them simply upgrades to existing functional capabilities – and this is often the correct, anti-hype, approach. Not every new widget is revolutionary. However, there are technologies that (should) force us to reconsider how we operate. In business, we call this “business model innovation.” A famous case study involves the reaction of Charles Schwab when confronted with technology enabling individual online investing; as compared to that of Merrill Lynch. One bolted the new technology onto their existing business model, the other did not. Only one is still standing. Are we at a place where the network effects that result from innovations in personal computing, ubiquitous communications, the co-evolution of the user with technology, etc., finally amount to a different world?

I argue that this is more than a digital dimension to analog human interactions, because the very scale of these interactions lead to unprecedented effects. From an individual perspective, I have replaced letters I never wrote and phone calls I always put off with the ability to stay in touch with friends and family on a near-daily basis. Digitizing the analog experience, improving it in my case, as my inherent laziness is overcome by the ease of interaction. (Of course, I also work as part of a team of 100,000 IBM consultants – able to leverage enterprise social media to learn from them and share my experience for client value. Colleagues from North Carolina to Malta to Rome “digitize their analog process” by reaching across time zones and weak ties to leverage my experience and insights for their clients.)

However, from a global perspective:

  • The new nation of South Sudan will become the 193rd nation on July 9th, accompanied by a social media campaign designed to welcome them and make us aware of their young nation’s challenges.
  • A U.S. presidential candidate focuses on social media and becomes the first African-American president.
  • The “Arab Spring” is being monitored by Al Jazeera’s new Twitter dashboard, bringing journalism closer to the authentic voices of the people. Would any of these things happen solely because of social media? No, but that is a strawman argument.
  • Individuals sharing videos and stories of disaster from Indonesia to Japan mobilize awareness and concern globally, perhaps loosening purse strings as a global audience contributes to recovery efforts.

The question should be: what forms of governance are possible, when people can communicate, on a mass scale without an intermediary? This has been true on the Internet for over 20 years, but the tools are now on our impossibly small “smart” phones. When governments lose control of the message, and the whole world is watching – what comes next? How would Tiananmen Square have been different, if the students’ voices were heard past the Chinese authorities? If the survivors and the victims’ families could have shared their stories with the world? Social media did not create the Arab Spring, and it has not toppled governments. However, the platform is changing the methods and scope of these revolutions.

The view that social media is just a digitization of existing social interactions is true for the individual, and perhaps for a little while longer for agencies, but the unprecedented scale is starting to matter globally. The network effects that result from a global social media (and it is not yet truly global) will change many things. Including, perhaps, a few minds.

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Gadi Ben-Yehuda

This is a very thoughtful response, and it deserves an equally thoughtful rejoinder. This is only a taste.

There is a lot that you and I agree upon, but also some points I’d like to hone. One of them is that social media acts as a disintermediary. I don’t think that you can defend that statement – it is, in fact, a different kind of intermediary. Just ask the Chinese dissidents whose pages were removed because they didn’t use their real names. Just ask the Palestinians whose pages were removed because people felt that they advocated violence. You can point to Cory Booker and show how he was moved to shovel a woman’s driveway because she reached him through Twitter, but did Mayor Booker read everyone’s Twitter messages to him? Could he have if he wanted to? One person got much better access to their Mayor and everyone else got far less (as I doubt he was checking his feed while shoveling snow!)

In the days when kings had courts, only those in the room could jostle for the Sovereign’s attention. There were complex codes of behavior and one transgressed against the codes at his or her own peril. Today, we have mayors and county councils on facebook and twitter – much bigger rooms than a king’s court, and we are subject to ever-shifting rules of conduct and privacy. I would never, ever, ever tell an organization that they don’t need a Social Media Director (never, ever!), but they need arises out of that ever-shifting landscape. If an organization is to reap the greatest benefit from social media, someone needs to be learning and relearning the rules.

But I’m here to tell you: I wouldn’t want to be interviewing for the same job as Thomas Paine. That guy had hella SocMed chops.

More later.

John Bordeaux

Thank you – but be careful: My main argument is not that you agree with all of Shankman’s position. Just that you both agree in principle that social media is an incremental innovation. And when I say social media is a mechanism for disintermediation, I am not referring to a single tool (Facebook, with significant flaws in this regard); but to the overall arena. Facebook’s overreach will lead (already is leading) to alternatives that reduce the intermediary aspect of their tool. I don’t mean to say that we have reached utter disintermediation, just that the direction is promising and will matter at scale.