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.

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Radical orthodoxy

It is something of a commonplace to refer to associations as a kind of family or even to think of our mission-driven efforts as in some ways similar to a religion: an effort to organize like-minded individuals who share a common cause … a cause that is integral to both who they are as individuals (in our case, generally, members of the same industry or profession) and as part of something larger than individual self-interest.  We want our members to be passionately engaged, not mere consumers of products and services.  We want to make a difference and change the world in some way, hopefully for the better.  We even sometimes talk about being “evangelists” for our profession, industry or cause.

That thought came home hard with me while recently reading something about my own church.  Which church is irrelevant and naming it would only serve to derail the discussion in unrelated directions.  It isn’t about what one church believes or how you feel about it.  It isn’t meant to suggest that any of our organizations are as profoundly important as any church is.  Just go along with me for the moment, accepting that a church — any church — is a non-profit, voluntary organization with a mission.  What this commentator said about this church struck me as relevant for associations, too.  Paraphrasing to the point of plagiarism, that commentary ran along the following lines:

Association membership or engagement maintained merely out of cultural habit or legal/governmental establishment “has no future because it does not merit a future.”  A mission-driven organization that does not get out into the world and act upon what it believes sooner or later gets sick “in the hothouse atmosphere of its own self-absorption.”

When any organization gets too concerned about itself — its structure, hierarchy, governance, internal politics, culture — rather than its mission, the purpose it exists to serve, it “falls victim to a kind of narcissism.”  That narcissism leads to an irrelevant and self-referential focus on its own sophistication in form and operation.  This is where organizations get sidetracked by hugely contentious internal matters that, if we allow them to (and how often we do allow them to), become all-consuming efforts around matters that don’t actually matter.

We rationalize it, of course, and make it sound reasonable.  We tell ourselves that it would be foolish to take external actions until we get our own houses in order … until we get the membership model exactly right.  Or governance perfected.  Or whatever.

But where does that leave us vis-à-vis our mission?  Bold action, it is true, means that you risk something.  “Just as things can happen to someone who leaves the safety of home: accidents can happen.”  But isn’t “risking an injured organization far preferable to a sick organization, palsied by self-absorption?”

Such radicalism is “going to take some getting used to. Expect serious disorientation in those ideological redoubts where old battles over now-superceded [self-referential institutional constructs] … remain all-consuming.”

“Some may find it hard to reconcile … radicalism with orthodoxy. But that’s precisely what orthodoxy is: the adventure of radical conversion ordered to mission.”

I realize that these ramblings run the risk of fueling the fires of another pitfall we face:  an overinflated sense of our own importance.  After all, we aren’t responsible for men’s souls or eternity.  Hubris is as catastrophic as self-absorbed complacency.  Maybe even more so.  Associations are important … but we are not that important.

Still … we are organizations defined by mission.  We should be organizations driven by mission.  Keeping our houses in order is important, but only in so far as being better organized and structured, operationally efficient, and philosophically consistent makes us better at achieving our mission.

Start with the end in mind, build capacity, achieve results, as Stephen Covey put it.

But never forget the core purpose, the mission, along the way.  That never changes, and shouldn’t as long as the mission itself remains relevant.  Being radical and orthodox means taking chances with everything else, risking everything else, in a ceaseless effort to be true to the reason the organization was created in the first place: its mission.

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.