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Preamble to the revolution

There are a couple of quotes that I use to start off my social media seminars/talks/whatnot. Today, I’ll share those.

There are two kinds of fool. One says, ‘This is old, and therefore good.’ And one says, ‘This is new, and therefore better.’

— John Brunner, author
“The Shockwave Rider”

Most people who run across jerks like me resist. And rightfully so. There is no shortage of snake-oil salesmen who promise the world, if only some company hire them or some company buys a service to cure all that ails. Social media is no different. It’s immediately overwhelming the number of speakers, conferences, books, seminars–not to mention blogs, wikis and videos; all explaining how social media will solve the world’s problems. So, when faced with yet another session from yet another presenter, there is often skepticism. And I don’t blame people.

What I try to convey with this quote is that there are two ditches to each road, and both have a danger to we, the travelers. On the one side you have the ditch of too little–too little action, planning, whatever; it’s the extreme of inaction. On the other side you have the ditch of too much–rash, impulsive, misplaced emphasis, too much action. Falling off of either ditch means a stuck car. Anyone who advocates either ditch is a fool, Brunner says.

When it comes to social media, these extremes apply as well.

You have the guy harping about “new new new” like it’s some kind of cult. Guys like me can fit into this category. These are the snake oil salesmen, latching on to social media because it’s new. Nevermind the fact that it might or might not be needed. People in this category–advocating this ditch, are out to tear the world down because it’s old. Everything must go! Shake up the system! Oftentimes, paranoia about becoming irrelevant drives a person to such zealous rage, or perhaps frustration at a circumstance, or perhaps still ignorance. It is foolish.

Likewise, the other side of the argument is foolish as well. These involve the “old” people, advocating “old” things. Many times, the new zealots attack old because–well, it’s old. What more does a thing need to demonstrate before being taken down? Regardless, people who advocate the old ditch do so out of zealous conservatism. They are worried. Sometimes they’re scared. They would rather be safe than risk a foray into the unknown. And, to the defense of what works, it has done so. Established norms have proven themselves. Otherwise, the organization wouldn’t exist today. Where this mindset paralyzes people, though, is that comfort in past procedural or philosophical victories stagnates. Spartans were amongst the best warriors of the world in their time, but even the mighty phalanx became obsolete, as did the Spartan strategies.

Flirting with either ditch is risky. That’s why we stay in the middle. We bring the wisdom of experience and temper it with relevance and constant introspection. We push to wisely move forward. With social media, we aren’t burning down the house–we’re remodeling and reshaping things as we find tools that better meet our established objectives. There is a place for the zealot revolutionaries and staunch conservatives–both offer valuable insight and innovation. But neither can be given too much sway. Too much of either is foolish.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Of a good leader, who speaks little, when the work is done, his aim fulfilled, the people will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’

— Lao Tzu, father of Taoism

When advocating change, starting a revolution, orchestrating an attack on the status quo or whatever; it is important that the thought leader, commander, policy maker, whomever, is not chasing after glory or personal gain. Side effects can occur, sure–a book deal, a better job offer; but these are best accomplished when the above quote is held close to the heart. It is in the essence of every good leader to be selfless. Being the frontman/woman should be a role taken with modesty and supplication. Cults of personality are too easily swayed toward the dangerous cliffs of disconnection, misdirection or self-affirmation. When a leader falls in love with him/herself, the movement is in peril. While it is still possible for such a movement to continue to do good, based on the altruism of the leader; more often than naught, petty personal squabbles and short-sightedness keep the vision from seeing past the fog of the immediate morning.

Instead, when a leader is focused on empowerment, on teaching others to fish, such a movement is timeless. It speaks to the essential goodness in people: self sacrifice, extraordinary effort, collaboration, truth. These are the virtues that social media tries to extol. After all, it does take a lot of work to set up and maintain a wiki; to write a blog; to prepare a seminar lecture. If a leader pushes for these initiatives with the intentions of being beneficial to as many people as possible, it stays genuine. People listen. It sounds socialist, sure, but people trust it. That’s why most of Web 2.0 is free. So many tools that do so much…free. Who is the head of Google? Who wrote Facebook? Ok, even if you know those, who is submitting data sets to data.gov? Who put in the long hours to establish drop.io? Or any of the other thousand free and extremely beneficial tools out there?

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.

— Army General Eric Shinseki (ret.), former chief of staff, as quoted by Tom Peters in Reimagine, DK 2003

Ha! Priceless. And spot on. Now we’re getting down to business. With the process of revolution qualified and the new guys hopefully humbled a bit, the conservatives need a good kick in the butt too. Every time I run into a brick wall when teaching social media–every time people say, “Not now” or, “We’d rather stay with email”; this quote comes to mind. And I said brick wall, mind you. People who are generally hesitant are normal. I’m talking about when all is said and done–when the objectives have been defined, the leadership pushing forward, the tools identified, the initiatives begun, the training established. Then, after all of that, if the general consensus remains, “Who are you? Go away! We’re fine with what we’ve always done”; then it’s time for this quote. Safe might be safe, for now. But soon (soon happening sooner and sooner every day), such stagnation will render an organization irrelevant, if it isn’t already.

DINFOS, where I work, was skirting close to irrelevance. When no one could be bothered to push for new material in the curriculum. When everyone was happy just plugging along. When change was too hard, according to some. Or worse, when change was not needed. I would often liken it to working in a monastery. We painted over the windows with our incredibly limited Internet access. We stuck to studying our ancient texts of journalism, complete with “FLITJ” headline counting and dummy sheets for pagination. We never mentioned blogs, wikis or anything like that. Hell, even our “field training exercise” had media pools, a practice decades old and not used very often anymore.

But some in the schoolhouse started kicking people in the teeth and got things moving. For various reasons, certain mindsets were resisted. I was one of the advocates for social media, joined by several others in the building. We started tearing down the rotted, old framework and started reinforcing our operations with new material. We had to. Some of the services had already set up follow-on schools to augment the training of individuals from here. When I was in the field (out in the regular Army), doing things the “DINFOS way” was a joke–synonymous with wrong or uninformed.

Whereas instead of being the bastion of military communication, as we daily laud ourselves as being; we were instead the babbling old relative in the corner–someone the services tolerated because of our history, but arguably one who never said anything of much value.

Irrelevance should be the fire than always nips at our heels to wisely change. Businesses change because irrelevance equals bankruptcy. In the bureaucratic morass of government service, where irrelevance does little to stymie promotion, it takes the girded zeal of well-intentioned introspection to push through the expensive and suffocating layers of mechanisms dedicated to the status quo.

So many say, “Why bother? It’s easier to just sit back and get paid.”

Easier, yes; but God is watching. I’d rather better the world, in my small way.


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