The Social Media ‘Revolution’ debate – time for some social and historical context

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Social Media ‘Revolution’ debate – time for some social and historical context

  1. Excellent piece. Part of the social context is the perception in some industries that the direct and low-cost reproduction and distribution of digital material destroys their business model. The music and news industries have good reason to think this.
    Journalists are particularly vulnerable to the myth of social media taking over their function. News is not a business model and its social function is not reliant on ‘one-to-many’ distribution. But they feel so threatened by freely distributed content that they think they could be replaced by networked amateurs. So-called citizen journalists may extend the sources and interactions of news organisations, but they cannot professionally work together to carry out journalism’s social function.
    The news industry is committing professional suicide in reaction to free content. That is a bigger problem for its long, long decline in profitability than the “impact” of technology. Large commercial parts of the news industry (most explicitly The Guardian group) pretend a social revolution is happening and are planning their own absorption and liquidation into an imagined social network.
    Business more broadly is blinded by the “impact” of a few successes from a sea of failure in attempts to monetise non monetary on-line relationships.
    The philosopher of science and mind, Robert Clowes of the University of Sussex, argues that you should never refer to the “impact” of social media; technologies are so changed and redesigned in relation to their use, re-purposing by users and changes in types or numbers of users that the idea of one thing impacting on another is a fundemetally incorrect conception of the process.
    All the best,
    Sean Bell in Brighton, UK

  2. Super provocative post. Yes, there is a difference between the culture of business and society, which is as dynamic as it is varied, and business basics, which is more rigidly constrained.

    The likes of Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis made their reputations undermining the corporate world’s confidence in its own culture. PR is history, dead tree press is dead, old-fashioned marketing is toast, here comes everybody with the end of formal structures and intermediaries, they declared. They believe – based on exaggeration of the nature of modern cynicism and the impact of social media – that corporates have lost the trust of their publics and that control has moved to the people.

    My PR blog advocates something different. I say their account of the old world and the role corporates played in it, and how they related to their publics, is as mistaken as their vision of today and tomorrow.

    I argue that the time has come to make a stand in defence of PR, advertising and marketing. The time has come for corporates to become more self-confident (Apple style if you like, rather than GM’s manic search for connections in social media). I’m saying we need a reality check and a little bit more commonsense and self-belief in our products, ideas and values.

    Meanwhile, I accept wholeheartedly that you are right about unforeseen transformations. For example, Telcos first dismissed short messaging (SMS) as being useless. But the market had other ideas. SMS transformed how we groom, flirt and maintain contact with each other on the move; that’s all cultural stuff. SMS went on to become a boom business that also fueled the popularity of reality TV shows (a massive cultural shift in their own right)

    Moreover, I think we also agree, that human nature is the product of our social environment. It is forever being transformed and, yes, social media has a hand in that right now (but not quite as advertised).

  3. I thought the point about kids creating spaces for themselves via technology is a very interesting one and that we are endeavouring (as adults) to keep up. There has long been a discussion about the dangers of leaving children alone with their computers whether because they could hook up with undesirables inadvertently or watch/read something that could be considered dangerous. One wonders whether this paranoia is a sign of adults’ lack of security. Digital media on the one hand for adults with children can give them a sense of security ie. giving children mobiles, becoming their friend on Facebook etc but also raises worries for the adults as mentioned above. Looking at how children use digital media to create space is definitely an area that is very interesting.

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