The Power (and Limitations) of Social Media

swiming in dataAt a recent conference, I was diligent in my efforts to use social media to not only capture my own notes, but share them with my colleagues and associates, present and absent.  I got a decent amount of reaction and interaction for my efforts.  Retweets, likes, comments and discussion.  (Nothing remotely viral, mind you, but my efforts did not go unnoticed by the (in the grand scheme of the world) relatively small community of professionals who share my interests and concerns.)

I even got a tweet from a colleague whom I admire and who was not at the conference that my social media flow “made me feel like I was there and able to participate.”

I was simultaneously flattered and horrified by the reaction.

Flattered, because it suggested, perhaps, that I had been reasonably successful in a small but arguably impactful way in amplifying engagement and  advancing  the discourse of the brick-and-mortar event within the likeminded community who care about my profession and its future.

Gratified that the focus achieved through the laborious process of reducing insights to fit  the 140 character limits of the media seemed to have been successful.

Horrified to think that these soundbites, absent all the context, nuance and depth of the intellectual substance generated by the conference itself, could conceivably pass for (and be accepted) as remotely adequate or even marginally profound.

Frustrated that the limitations of capturing the idea is sometimes achieved at the expense of failing to give full or proper credit to the source of the insight.  Just because I tweeted it doesn’t mean the thought was mine.  But with a 140 character limit, there is only so much capacity to convey an idea and give proper credit where credit is due. (The media almost compel us to become involuntary plagiarists.)

And in my morning after moment, I am left wondering:  We live in a world where political engagement and news have already been reduced to soundbites, slogans and attention grabbing at the expense of substance, a process readily evident in the current presidential political campaigns and how they are covered.  This has replaced serious political discourse and deep engagement with achieving solutions to the complex issues and challenges that face us as a society.  News has evolved from “what bleeds, leads” to whatever can ignite passion is more important than advancing the dialogue in any meaningful way. That passion is not a bad thing; maybe it is even a critically necessary thing.  It is just insufficient if it fails to enable action that achieves actual solutions.  (It has been two years since #bringbackourgirls galvanized global attention … but those girls are still gone.) In politics, that passion can even be counterproductive to actually getting anything done and impede building any basis for consensus as a foundation for concrete action.

Maybe I am just sleep deprived and it will all look better tomorrow, but the question I am left with:  Have associations (or really any cause or mission-driven enterprise) become as attention-deficit benighted as our politics and news, and do we now accept that soundbites (slogans) that resonate actually do constitute sufficient wisdom and knowledge? Or constitute an actual accomplishment?

I do not want to in any way dismiss or disparage the sincerity and good will behind this new , social media reality … I just wonder whether it actually is getting us anywhere.

Or worse, creates an illusion of substance that enables complacency.

Free? Hold on a Minute.

A few years ago I moderated a workshop on Chris Anderson’s book, Free and its implications for associations at the Digital Now conference.  (That presentation can be found here.)

Anderson’s thesis was based largely on the concept of a “freemium” – give something away that creates a demand for future purchases. You know, give away a razor and create a future market for razor blades.

A lot of what Anderson had to say rang true. And a lot of associations and some of the smartest people I know who lead them jumped in on the concepts.  But I had two nagging concerns, then and now:

imagesCA7RXFGYFirst, while it is absolutely true that, in the digital age, with the cost of bandwidth and storage decreasing to almost nothing, the incremental cost of adding an additional customer has also approached zero. It costs the association nothing to send a digital magazine to an extra non-paying subscriber (or a few thousand). It costs the association nothing to benefit an extra thousand nonmembers when it achieves a legislative victory. But somebody had to bear the expense of creating the content in the first place or investing in the advocacy legwork. Who pays for that?

Second, there is what Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon calls the “hedonic treadmill.” That is, “the human predisposition to feel entitled to today what we used to feel thankful for yesterday.”  What’s given away free might be enough to stimulate purchases for a while, but almost immediately what was once viewed as exceptionally enticing when received for free, is simply taken for granted. It becomes an entitlement, not a windfall. To feed the freemium appetite, providers are trapped in a business model characterized by an ever escalating demand to give away more and more in order to sell less and less.

Well, it turns out I wasn’t the only one with these concerns. In his soon-to-be-published book, Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier does an about face on his own previously held views on free content and crowdsourcing.  Lanier’s credentials in this arena are pretty good.  He is often credited with coining the term “Internet 2.0” and was a pioneer in virtual reality.  (His involvement in VR dates back to work at Atari Labs in the early 1980s).

In his new book, this founding editor of Wired magazine argues that free information is wrecking our economy and that rather than “the wisdom of the crowd,” digital crowdsourcing “can too easily turn into a lynch mob.”

The book is set to be published in May, but the profile in the January issue of Smithsonian magazine, “What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?,” gives you a pretty good idea of where he is coming from.

Reactionary or visionary?  Let the debate begin …

A wealth of data … but is it all real?

swiming in dataSeven years after the ASAE Foundation first published Seven Measures of Success it has become a whole lot easier to be a “data-driven” association.   In 2006, the cost, systems and infrastructure needed to do what the remarkable 9 associations did with data was a major challenge.  Less than a decade later, even the smallest association is probably collecting and tracking far more data just by executing their day-to-day operations than they will ever fully leverage.

But along with the increased ease of access and the volume of data now readily available, there has been a dramatic increase in the vulnerability to the illusion of data. One analyst of the 47th annual release of the Higher Education Research Foundation’s American Freshman Study attributes the variance between how students perceive themselves and objective measures of things like academic performance and study habits to data generated by things like Twitter and Facebook that paint a picture that isn’t supported by reality.

And unfortunately, there is another trend readily apparent in all this: the seemingly irresistible urge to add heat to any discussion by using provocative and extreme language.

So maybe the real change since Seven Measures is that, in a world awash in data, the only way to get anyone to pay attention to any of it is through provocative hyperbole.  If that is the case, it is a tragedy.

Read more in my last Association TRENDS commentary here.

Association tech trends

imagesMy picks for the three biggest technology trends affecting associations for 2013:

1. It’s not just social … or even primarily social … it’s all about mobile access now

2. If you are a control freak … get over it.

3. If you still think IT is somebody else’s responsibility, you’re wrong

Read more in my latest Association TRENDS commentary here.

Just because it’s easy and you can, doesn’t mean you should

That was the common thread from the presentations and discussion at TREND’s Annual Communications Legal Update on October 26th. Among the high level takeaways was the need to remember that most of the arcane web of political communication, intellectual property, privacy, and commercial law that governs our digital world was written decades before digital was a reality.  But that doesn’t excuse us from having to conduct our association communications activities (particularly our online and social media communications) in compliance with those rules.   In other words, it doesn’t need to make sense to apply to you.

Read more in my latest Association TRENDS commentary, here.

The social media dog that didn’t bark

In the Sherlock Holmes mystery “Silver Blaze,” the solution turns on “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”  Scotland Yard Detective Gregory can be forgiven for his confusion when he protests, “the dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That,” Holmes observes, “was the curious incident.”

There are a number of dogs that didn’t bark in Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant’s 2012 Social Leadership Survey.  As Joe Rominiecki points out in ASAE’s coverage of the survey, the most deafening silence came in how low “participates on social media in his/her own voice” ranked in the survey’s list of desirable traits in a leader.  For all our talk about the importance of engagement in social media, that characteristic ranked tenth out of twelve in the survey.  And it came in behind such old school, low-tech characteristics as “brilliant strategist,” “holds others accountable,” and “leverages best practices.”

But before that segment within the association community that insists social media is just the latest fad diverting our time and attention from our real work gets too comfortable, the lesson to be learned is more subtle, but just as challenging to the status quo.

Reading the data, I would consider acceptance, or more precisely, overt recognition of the need for fluency and authenticity in the leader’s social media voice to be a lagging indicator.  It comes later.  But it will come.

Why do I say that?  Look at the leadership characteristics that did rank high in Notter and Grant’s survey: “transparent, shares information freely;” “comfortable with conflict;”  “open to diverse perspectives.” These are certainly capacities that are demanded of a social media-fluent association leader.  But they are also leading indicators: factors that are driving associations to social media, regardless of their level of comfort, fluency or expertise in that environment.

Now I can already hear the Twitter-resistant among you protesting that these same leadership characteristics have relevance and importance in the “real” world, too.  True enough.

But there is no question that social is the increasingly dominant medium for the general population.  And I, for one, find the fact that we recognize the importance of being strong in the very areas that will make us successful in both cyber and more traditional communications venues a very encouraging sign.  It is a basic requisite for survival in a multi-media environment that is changing rapidly around us —a world where we can ill afford any all-or-nothing media strategies and have to (at least for a while) keep our feet in multiple camps simultaneously or risk disenfranchising some portion of our constituency that is moving at a different speed toward social, or has different communications preferences.

I sometimes get irritated with some of the prophets of social media.  They can be just a little too insistent that “social media is the answer,” regardless of the question1.  Social is a means to an end, not a goal to be pursued for its own sake. If the data had merely indicated popular enthusiasm for social media as social media, I would have been unimpressed.  That would have just recognized an already obvious trend that might even be open to the charge of being a fad.

But the data didn’t do that.  It provided validation that the underlying skills necessary in effective social media are increasingly recognized as means every association leader needs to master, regardless of how far they have gone down the social media path.

That suggests we’re moving the right direction, whether we realize it or not.


1  And let me be crystal clear, I do not consider Notter and Grant to be included among those faux prophets of social media.  To the contrary. They are among the most clear-headed analysts of social media and associations out there today.  And if you haven’t read their book, Humanize, stop reading this blog and get it.

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.

Who was that masked man?

Does knowing  nothing more about who is behind a statement than the words a person uses to express themselves make online pronouncements more or less reliable?

On one hand, not knowing anything about who is blogging or tweating beyond the sometimes very limited information about themselves that they choose to make known to you is a good thing. It forces the ideas expressed to stand or fall on their own merit, without bias or prejudgments about who is stating them.

On the other hand, if I know nothing about whether the more-or-less anonymous author has any relevent knowledge, expertise or background, how do I know if his or her well intentioned advice is credible? Particularly, if the post is highly critical, I have no clues as to any particular biases or agenda they bring to the issue. 

Read more in my guest blog on ASAE’s Acronym: “There are no ribbons in cyberspace.”

Open or closed?

The online world is divided into two camps over that one.

One camp thinks there should be no restrictions or guidelines around who participates in online communities.  Everything should be open to everybody. If someone with a completely different set of experiences shocks you with an idea or perspective that never would have occurred to you, that’s precisely what makes social media such a vibrant and empowering place to live, learn and grow.

Then there is the group that says being part of a boundary-less and restriction-free community is fine, but who also like gated communities, where they can gather with people who share the same expertise, face the same professional challenges, and operate in the same environments that they do. 

Both viewpoints have their merits. It would be nice to be able to say “to each their own” and leave it to personal preference, but often the two world views collide in the same, online space. And if it is the association who is providing the platform, that can put you in the crossfire.  

Not too long ago, a member with a long and distinguished career in the profession, but who was no longer involved in day-to-day management, expressed frustration that she was no longer eligible to participate on the association’s managers’ listserv.  It isn’t like all her wealth of knowledge and experience got erased just because she was no longer working in a management capacity. 

She also observed there is a danger in engaging in artificially defined exclusivity.  It can lead to insular thinking and moribund elites.  It assumes that no one outside our self-defined group has anything useful to say (or critical for us to know) about our world. To thrive (or even just survive), this member argued, members need to be open to what is going on around them, not just to the prevailing views and orthodoxy of people who see the world and think just like they do.  And she has a point.  

But on the flip side, I understand the preferences of other members who want access to communities of interest limited to those who actually fit that community’s definitions.  They observe (correctly) that the association does have forums that are open to all comers.  Whether you are a member or non-member, whatever segment of the profession you operate in, whether you are a student, new professional, veteran or retired … it’s all the same. 

They just want somewhere else they can go to as well, where they don’t have to filter and guess whether a post offering advice on their workplace problem comes from a well-intentioned member who is operating in an entirely different environment and who knows nothing about the day-to-day reality facing someone in their industry sector.    

Open or closed, the debate will continue.  And with the technologies evolving and changing even as we experiment with these new communication modalities, the debate over how we debate is likely to persist even as we conduct the debate itself over what it is we started the conversation about in the first place.

Rosetta Stone for Twitter

Twitter is a second language … it takes some effort to learn to speak it fluently.  

But does tweeting content in realtime at educational events add or detract from the educational experience?

A lot of what gets tweeted at conferences and seminars is drivel, but for those fluent in the language, Twitter can add a new dimension to knowledge transfer.

Read more in my guest blog on ASAE’s Acronym:

“Rosetta Stone for Twitter” on Acronym