In a very well argued piece There’s no social media revolution, Paul Seaman takes a welcome critical view of the hype surrounding social media in the enterprise. While there is much to agree with him on, especially his critique of the technological-determinism underpinning the debate (the technology will sweep all before it regardless of context), his argument remains one-sided and over-determined by the terms the supporters of the social media revolution have set for the debate. As a result I think he fails to appreciate just what is new in today’s social and business environment.
TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY
First, social context always determines how technologies are adopted and used and therefore what impact they may have. The history of technological innovation is the history of unforeseen transformations. Technologies clearly invented or conceived for one clearly defined use have acquired other unexpected uses over time and have become part of the social evolution and progress of human society. When humans have created tools they have excelled at finding new usages for them. As David Nye puts it in his excellent Technology Matters: ‘latent in every tool are unforeseen transformations’. In short, social mediation transforms technologies into what are acceptable and socially useful adjuncts. It is social circumstances, not the functionalities within technologies that determine precisely how a technology will be adopted, used or rejected.
Thus, it is too one-sided to simply assert that technologies do not change the business environment, that business is business regardless of historical context. At one level, there is truth in this: market-driven economics dictate that unless you make a profit you will go out of business. Any technology successfully introduced into the enterprise, be it the spinning jenny or computers, will be determined by their impact on the overall profitability of the company. And yes, the hype of social media will soon come up against the structural impediment of the division of labour and corporate culture. How this might impact these and where it goes is anyone’s guess at this point in time. But what we can be sure of is that corporate culture will inevitably change as a result of the introduction of social media into the enterprise. Will this be a revolution? We will see. Unforeseen consequences are precisely that: unforeseen.
But it raises a more fundamental and prior question which is why are enterprises adopting social media into their day-to-day operations?
A NEW SOCIAL CONTEXT
This brings me to my second concern: being drawn into the debate on the terms set by the social media hype merchants fails to appreciate how fundamentally the social context has shifted. There are three notable points to make which combine to make this period quite unique:
- First, the introduction of social media into the enterprise goes against the historical evolution of how key technologies have disseminated across society. For the first time, the enterprise is being infused by consumer-based technologies and behaviours; not the other way around. The telephone, fax, email, mobile telephony etc all began as enterprise tools and gradually seeped from the enterprise into society. Now its the other way around;
- Second, younger generations growing up with these technologies have integrated them into their lives like no other generation and as a result have impacted broader social trends disproportionately. Again this is historically specific: it is not the technology that has attracted young people but their social needs. This is the result of how risk culture has transformed childhood. Children have increasingly been attracted to digital media as a way to escape the constant gaze of adults, create spaces for their self-expression, identity play, entertainment and social experimentation. This has been a systematically misunderstood phenomenon: ‘digital kids’ have become digital whiz-kids who are regarded as naturally brilliant with technology – in contrast to the dinosaur generation; namely, adults. (The notion of ‘digital whiz-kids is a myth which I cannot deal with here but will in future posts). Most worrying is the fact that adult society is mimicking the digital generation. Just observe the demographics of the Facebook generation to see how the behaviours of this generation now influence older generations and not the other way around;
- Third, the elevation of digital children has resulted in a loss of confidence amongst adults, especially with respect to the digital media. But this crisis of confidence is far deeper and has become a crisis of adult authority and legitimacy. This crisis can be seen in government and the enterprise: whether its to do with the state outsourcing its authority (the relinquishing of control of the Bank of England is perhaps one of the starkest examples to-date) or within the enterprise, through the increased use of external consultants or the outsourcing of innovation, etc the loss of confidence across society has become palpable.
These points need to be explored further which I hope to do on this blog in the future. They represent some key social changes underpinning the social context within which social media are being increasingly adopted within and without the enterprise. There has been a silent social transformation which the ‘social media revolution’ is an expression of, rather than a cause. In short, my argument is that the adoption of social media has more to do with the crisis of authority and legitimacy within the business world and more broadly across society, than anything inherently revolutionary in the technology itself.
The debate about the social media, by concentrating on an exaggerated technologically-determined sense of change, misses these critical points. Yes, the introduction of these technologies is going to have an effect (and has some enormous potential). But the outcomes will not be determined by the technologies per se, but by the underlying social context. This remains paramount and understanding this will allow us to gain an historical perspective so lacking in the contemporary debate.