I had a big insight today: the word “social” in the term “social media” represents the ultimate in misleading advertising, and is responsible for many failures and a lot of disenchantment, especially within the enterprise. The adjective attracts exactly the sort of people most likely to fail at doing anything valuable with the technology. The sort of extroverted, harmony-seeking, consensus-driven collectivists who think it is all about the group, cutting big-ego prima donnas down to size, and building Brave New Egalitarian Communities that enshrine social justice values. It also explains why thoroughly introverted, unsociable, egoistic and ornery individualists (I am one; among my nicknames in college was “hermit”) take to the medium like ducks to water. This conflation of social with sociable, collectivist and communitarian is extraordinarily tempting. Yes, the medium fosters communication and collaboration, but remember, wolf packs communicate and collaborate rather better than sheep. And they compete viciously for the carcass right after. The true nature of social media, the “message” of this medium, is one of radical, uncompromising individualism, within a brutally competitive, bubblegum-flavored Darwinian virtual environment. The “social” adjective is about something else entirely, not collectivist utopia. Allow me to elaborate. The implications are extraordinarily counter-intuitive, and if you don’t learn to appreciate them, you will be eaten by the wolves.
The Social Media Values Test
First, judge for yourself. Here is a two-column list, with individualist and collectivist values. Both lists are derived from William Whyte’s classic The Organization Man, with the “collectivist” values representing what he called the Organization Man’s “Social Ethic” and the “individualist” values being essentially those of the “Protestant Ethic” of the earlier Robber Baron era in America. Which set of values do you think better describes successful uses of social media that you’ve encountered?
You can extend the list considerably, and there are subtle cases where social media appears to be collectivist at first glance, but is really individualist when you look deeper. Consider creativity and innovation: the “Wisdom of the Crowds” only seems like a collectivism-vs.-genius model. The real insight is that the wisdom of the crowds depends on individualism and “private” knowledge. WoC mechanism designers strive to get people thinking independently during ideation. It is only in later phases of pooling, building-off-each-other and filtration that communication is encouraged. And it isn’t to compromise and create consensus, it is to do decidedly non-egalitarian things like ranking or “stock picking” in prediction markets. Early sharing, consultation and convergent debate actually makes the outcomes worse by fostering group-think and convergence to mediocre compromises. Collectivism, unlike WoC, encourages exactly these pathologies. Whyte describes this brilliantly (the guy got social media in 1953 better than many do in 2009!):
In group doctrine the strong personality is viewed with overwhelming suspicion. The cooperative are those who take a stance directly over keel; the man with ideas-in translation, prejudices-leans to one side or, worse yet, heads for the rudder. P1ainly, he is a threat. Skim through current group handbooks, conference leaders tool kits, and the like and you find what sounds very much like a call to arms by the mediocre against their enemies…The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a creative vehicle. Can it be? People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises. But they do not think; they do not create…[The] fixture of organization life [,] the meeting self-consciously dedicated to creating ideas…is a fraud. Much of such high-pressure creation-cooking with gas, creating out loud, spitballing, and so forth-is all very provocative, but if it is stimulating, it is stimulating much like alcohol. After the glow of such a session has worn off, the residue of ideas usually turns out to be a refreshed common denominator everybody is relieved to agree upon-and if there is a new idea, you usually find that it came from a capital of ideas already thought out-by an individual-and perhaps held in escrow until moment for its introduction. Somehow, individual initiative must enter into the group…[We] must remember that if every member simply wants do what the group wants to do, then the group is not going to do anything. — William Whyte, The Organization Man, 1953.
I will not belabor the point, but even apparent collectivist successes like Obama’s social-media fueled victory lend themselves to individualist-ethics analysis.
So What’s So “Social” About Social Media?
Here’s why people fall into this confusion. The media are “social” not because they enable sociability, harmony and World Peace, but because people are the medium. You don’t connect to people through the medium. The people are the medium to connect you to value. The technology itself is just the material that allows humans to act like a connective medium. Here’s an analogy: specific social technologies like wikis and blogs are like metals, it is humans’ virtual activity that forms the metal into communication “pipes” that make the whole thing “media.” Twitter and email illustrate this best. I don’t realy get links to interesting articles through “email” or “twitter,” I get them through “people.” I don’t connect to people (in the sense of “making friends/contacts”) through the LinkedIn platform: I connect to people I don’t know through people I know, who are also on the platform. Remember McLuhan’s big idea, that the “Medium is the Message?” Here’s how the algebra works out:
The medium is social because it is made of people, and its “message” is the true nature of people. Love it or hate it, we are products of evolution: we brilliantly co-operate like pack dogs to bring down the bison, and then fight like crazy over the carcass. We groom each other as primates, but owe our brain development in large part to the evolution of social manipulation and exploitation skills. These are the human traits social media amplify.
This means all successful social media efforts are fueled by self-interest, not altruism. If it looks like altruism, look again. If it looks “free,” look for the hidden economy.
Implications: Six Easy Pieces
I could go on, but a word to the wise is sufficient. This “social media is not really social in that sense” idea takes getting used to. I myself was long puzzled by how unreasonably natural an apparently “social” medium felt to me, a certified and implacable anti-collectivist. The powers-that-be at my workplace once saw fit to send me to a leadership course, where of course, I scored “ornery, stubborn, recluse” on all those tests for sociability and introversion. I avoid parties and committee work like the plague, and I never yet met a consensus that I don’t itch to disrupt just for the hell of it. And I am not alone — most social media mavens I’ve met seem to be like me. I usually find them by butting heads with them somewhere, and then making up.
The lesson is unequivocal: radical individualists of the world rejoice. Despite all appearances, this is YOUR world.
Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at www.ribbonfarm.com, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.
“I never yet met a consensus that I don’t itch to disrupt just for the hell of it” – that made me laugh. Cracking post, Grommit. You are particularly spot-on in your analysis in Point 4, in my view.
The world only belongs to radical individualists if they have courage and enough of a thick skin to speak their contrary views publicly online. Face-to-face? No problem. It takes a while to find an authentic online voice.
I think your observations are spot on, but not the whole story. Social technologies can, and will, be used for everything people do together. They will be competitive and they will be cooperative, in person and online. I think the valuable insight here is in the observation that the use of the word “social” does not carry moral content, that it is not about being “sociable” — but having torn down that false god, don’t erect a new one to your own preseliction for orneriness.
Communities online develop with a logic and with social practices much like communities in the physical world — the people who participate in them will over time reward or penalize different kinds of behaviors. You may find success and comfort from different online space than I do and in some (like this one) we may even engage. But don’t put all social technologies into a single mode, they will be as different as we are as people and as our societies are in the physical world.
Powerful and very thought provoking. Two quotes come to mind,
As the Bullet Enters my brain, I love Big Brother- George Orwell
Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.- Ayn Rand
Humans are inherent social beings the need to communicate and connect is almost genetic to our makeup. We form identity in our social circles, social in terms of social media is spot on.
This is more social sciences rather than collective group think. I see it this way Social Media is empowering the individual, which in turn is the core and foundation of freedom-
I am happy to read that you had a “big insight today” but I am sorry to tell you that there is nothing new under the sun.
You obviously have confused social and socialism and overlooked the notions of “networked individualism” and “social affordances” (which happen to be the two core notions behind social media).
Additionally making fun of Smith’s *metaphoric* notion of “Market” and diving into Darwinism to justify your point is just pure schizophrenia.
My best advice for you today is: Think twice and read before you write.
Thanks for the responses.
Anne: you’re right about authentic online voices taking longer to find.
Ted: I think there is more here than just an agnostic technology that can express any morality equally well. The point of McLuhan’s “Medium is the Message” idea is that media/technology are _not_ agnostic. If it were merely my preference for individualism over collectivism, this article would not be worth writing. A statement that “some corners of social media exhibit individualist cultural patterns” would do. My post explores the speculative theory that there is a general bias in the technology itself that makes individualist efforts easier, and collectivist efforts uphill struggles.
Kevin: good point about the adjective “social as in social sciences.” I think perhaps we need a pithy phrase similar to the “free as in speech, not beer” invented by the open source folks. Maybe “social, as in sciences, not party.”
Olivier: glad you’ve discovered eternal all-encompassing wisdom.
Kevin is right, there is no such thing like “radical individualism”. Begin by reading this: http://tinyurl.com/bgmk8l
A human being is an output of society. Without society you would not even have the ability for being a “hermit”. You wouldn’t be able to think about anything. You would not think at all but act like a strange animal (not even a higher-ranked one because these are social, too) with a seemingly much too large brain. (No offence, I mean human beings in general ;-) )
“Social” in the context of social software means that the output is being made by a crowd – whether the crowd-members act selfish or not.
Stefan – Nobody is arguing that we are not a social species. That’s tautological. In fact, I started by noting the distinction between wolf-pack and sheep-like social structures. What I was arguing is that conflation of social with sociable/collectivist which a lot of people seem to do when it comes to social media, is an invalid leap.
In this broad sense, tigers and grizzlies are social just as lions and dolphins are. Individual and social identity have a chicken-egg relationship. One does not derive from the other. Social identity also could not exist without individualism. If the individual-social tension did not exist, you and I would be cells in a Borg-like multicellular creature. Or non-interacting uni-cellular creatures in the primordial soup.
And the link you posted, to Mead’s bio, doesn’t actually prove anything. The individual-social debate is one where you can stack up as many experts on one side as on another. Radical individualism is an existential/metaphysical concept, useful for some sorts of debate (like this one), but not a concept that can be meaningfully invalidated. Saying individualism doesn’t exist is like saying ‘culture’ or ‘society’ doesn’t exist.
Once upon a time, I wrote a short (and incomplete) essay titled The Medium Is The Meaning We Consume and Create … Together, which I think may be a long and complicate version of the equation you set out in the box.
“distinction between wolf-pack and sheep-like social structures”
Venkatesh, I can’t help, but this brings G. Bush’s crap-talking about “good and evel” into my mind. We both know that the issue of being social is far more complex.
But you are right in that we have, in the world of enterprise 2.0, to maintain former discussions about society. There are many theoretical frameworks (sociological, philosophical, psychological, managerial) that could be adapted – be it ‘racional choice’ or ‘principal agent’ for those who want to play towards individualism, be it Bourdieu about Social Capital or feminist theories for those who are rather critical, be it Amitai Etzioni an his view of communitarism, or be it systems theory for those that who it very very abstract. :-)
I think we’ll still have to wait a while before we see some interesting results from these (and other) research streams. However, I am confident that some of them will be marvelous.
What I like about this “opinion piece” is that it has made me think about the kind of characteristics an individual might need to be a successful “social media” user – and the expectations we might need to set with people or teams that have expressed an interest in using “social media” to improve the way in which they collaborate and work. I see technology as an extension to human capabilities and as “things” that help us do what we naturally do but much better. My expectation is that people will use “social media” in addition to all of the other ways they interact, collaborate, and share with people in their network or community. I do not see “social media” as a replacement and something that will eliminate the need to use a phone, meet with people in person, etc.
Thank you for writing this.
Very provocative posting – thanks!
I agree that individualism is critical to good social media. My expectation is that I’ll be able to see some creativity out there given the number of people who will contribute their points of view, as you have done.
My belief is that an individual who feels comfortable with his or her unique voice is someone who is more willing to hear that of another.
One minor adjustment – wolves don’t battle for the carcass. They operate under a very defined hierarchy. They know who their leader is at all times.
Very interesting perspective! Thanks for sharing.
Considering these individualistic motivations of social media, do you have suggestions for implementing tools like a wiki and balancing the need for a collective output with a respect for individual contributions and desire for recognition?
Interesting point you raise there. You highlight the fact that I conflated individualist in terms of opinion/groupthink/agreeableness vs. individualist in terms of uncooperative.
As successful wikis show, the lead users are both individualist in terms of how they think, and cooperative in terms of how they participate in group process.
So I don’t think it is necessarily recognition that motivates people (though that is part of it, bigger in some technologies like blogs, smaller in others like wikis). To the extent that it IS recognition, you should ask, “recognition by who?” That could be broad public, an aspirational elite, bosses, celebrities, other opinion leaders etc. You should also ask WHAT constitutes recognition. Prizes and medals are for collectivists mainly. Individualists might find recognition in things like influencing a decision to go their way, having people fear their wit, etc.
What you want is support for processes of contention within the group where people are competing for recognition, in whatever form or from whatever source they want. MediaWiki naturally supports that of course, with its ‘talk’ pages that allow people to furiously debate articles, and admins to dictatorially clamp down when necessary. Other wikis, if they don’t have that, should be augmented by things like bulletin boards.
Essentially, some way for individualists to establish opinion leadership based on credibility and ‘whuffie’ capital AROUND collaborative projects with respect TO the source of any recognition they crave IN the form they want.
Other tools will require their own context-specific thinking. I don’t believe in secret sauces in this space, so the orchestrator of a social media effort will basically have to sit down and think things through with the core group of right people.
Well, not sure I agree with the premise that the people who like to interact with others face to face are the main folks to be called “social.” True, they like one type of social interaction (face-to-face), but this doesn’t mean this is the only or even better type of interaction. All humans are social in that everything that we do and think and learn is in one way or another linked to feedback from others, and social networks just provide one way of expressing this being social. Also, to say that the “non-social” or geeks or whatever we would like to call them can contribute less is somewhat strange. I would probably say they (we??) can contribute in a *different* way, and different in this scenario seems to be a good thing.
btw, really like your blog — thought provoking, very insightful
Wow! After reading this, I now see a clear-cut line between Social 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0.
As long as people-rating (social media) is used as the benchmark, the volume of collective intelligence (of true value to the enterprise) will remain muted in the noise.
Enterprise 2.0 platforms need to be designed and built from ground on principles that factor in specifics such as collection, processing and broadcasting of enterprise knowledge – they simply cannot evolve from social networks.
You have the consensus decision making in the wrong column.
Collectivists only seek majority and coerce the minority to go along. Collectivists do not care whether or not there is consensus as they do not respect individual rights to object.
The Individualist, on the other hand, is fine to work in a group if s/he wants to do so and so does everyone else, as there is no conflict between working as a group and being an individual. So long as agreement is 100% consensual, no rights are being violated.
Consensual agreement is THE basis for free trade.
Majority agreement is THE basis for tyranny over the minority.
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