Context, confidence and authority

The problem I have with most social networking is that you can’t ask follow up questions.

Like a lot of people, I suppose, it took me a while to warm to Twitter and Facebook. I was initially put off by the sheer triviality of an overwhelming majority of the traffic. I mean really: I don’t care to take time out of my day to help Eleanor “reach a new high on Gingerbread Porch.” I have no interest in opening the fortune cookie sent to me by Rick. And my son probably didn’t need me to be instantly alerted with the news that he is now the mayor of a local microbrewery.

There is clearly a lot of chaff to sift through to get to the wheat. At times, so much chaff in proportion to wheat that it hardly seems worth the effort to do the sifting.

But if you stifle that initial impatience and annoyance, get a little bit ruthless about who you “de-friend” and block1, and use some of the filtering tools available, it can at least be made more manageable.

And well worth the effort. I am often struck by both the incisiveness and precision of thought and by the profound insight and wisdom coming from entirely unexpected sources via LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Nothing, it seems, so focuses the mind as the need to get it all reduced to 140 characters. Nothing so challenges your established assumptions, bias and prejudices than a well-worded observation from a perspective you otherwise never would have considered.

But the exchange of information is (by design) asynchronous and non-linear. The platforms frustrate my desire to follow up or probe deeper. The flow of information remains largely (in some platforms, entirely) fragmented. As public as these engagements are, the context is inherently personal and unique to each of the disparate players in the dialogue. That is empowering, but it also creates an elevated need to take personal responsibility for exercising discipline and integrity in drawing your conclusions.

To be sure, there were loads of problems and limitations with such quaintly old fashion media as listservs and online forums: they were closed, insular and not conducive to diversity of views or breakthrough dialogue. But they did at least create a single, fixed thread for each conversation, which allowed you to follow ideas-reactions-elaborations as they developed. With the current platforms for social networking, too often the kernel of an absolutely brilliant idea remains just that: no more than the potential for future growth. And the very ubiquity and ease of individual access to mass communication obscures the fact that when I engage in a discussion with my community, I can’t be sure everyone I am talking to is seeing the same overall picture or collection of individual posts that I am. (Very often I find myself wanting to object on the basis of facts being argued that have not yet been introduced in evidence … only to discover that precisely that point has been previously made and discussed somewhere else on a wall or in a group I am not part of.)

Let me be clear: the problem didn’t start with social networking. In 1980, you couldn’t just assume a statement was true because you read it in the newspaper. Politicians have always used sound bites taken out of any context to imply a broader point, unsupported by any facts.

But as the speed and ease of mass distribution have increased, as the value placed on brevity has risen, and as the sourcing of information has grown more opaque, the issues of context, confidence level and authority have become even more the individual information consumer’s responsibility. Just because @twbmstr stated it cleverly and stated it as fact, 50 people retweeted it, and 5,000 people indicated they liked it, you have little basis to judge whether @twbmstr knew what he (or is it she?) was talking about in the first place. It is still up to each reader to provide whatever level of validation satisfies his or her standards of reliability. And I may or may not be privy to counterpoints and discussion on the very same tweet going on somewhere else.

Now before the social media cheerleaders get all in an uproar, I am absolutely NOT, NOT, NOT saying these are fatal flaws or that they invalidate social networking. The advances in community, collaboration and dialogue that social media have enabled are very real and not to be ignored. I am just saying that like any medium of communications, the now prevailing modes have limitations and flaws. Sometimes different limitations and flaws than the media they replaced. Sometimes differently, exaggerated flaws. But limitations and flaws nonetheless.

Which means they still need to be used wisely.

1 Sorry, Eleanor. In order to avoid the 30+ totally useless messages you put out each day, I am willing to risk missing the one substantive communication you share each month.

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About Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE
Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE, is Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior CEO roles include a nearly fourteen-year tenure as Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), Vienna, Virginia. Before joining NCRA staff , he spent eight years with the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA), Washington, D.C. He also spent 12 years with the Association of Telemessaging Services International (ATSI), Alexandria, Virginia Long active in the association community, Mr. Golden is a past Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Association Leadership, a past Vice Chairman of the ASAE Board of Directors, past Chair of the Center for Association Leadership’s Research Committee, and past member of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce's Association Committee of 100. He is the 2011 recipient of the American Society of Association Executive's Key Award, the highest honor ASAE bestows, to "honor the association CEO who demonstrates exceptional qualities of leadership in his or her own association, and displays a deep commitment to voluntary membership organizations as a whole.”

2 Responses to Context, confidence and authority

  1. jbc says:

    I have great respect for you Mark and the thinking you shared here, but using a really inflammatory term like “social media jihadists” is pretty telling.

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