Within the business community views of the usefulness and potential importance of social media are all over the place. At one extreme are enthusiasts who speak readily of Business 2.0 and Entrepreneurship 2.0, and claim a deep integration between building value in the 21st century and the phenomenon of social connectedness. At the other there is skepticism and – if I understand this right – unease at the extent to which evidence of the impact of social is anecdotal and, essentially, theoretical. But, as so often, to speak of the “spectrum” of opinion doesn’t catch it. So let’s frame the discussion in a triangle.
Here are the three corner positions, or vertices as triangle fans call them.
1. Gangbusters value-building through social.
2. Fringe significance.
3. Here’s the third vertex: don’t know, don’t care, feel threatened, hire kids to handle these things.
What interests and continues to concern me is the extent to which the third option remains dominant, indeed is more dominant the larger the company. As assorted surveys have shown, it is in the largest of our corporations that senior executives are least personally engaged in social. To explain this in essentially generational terms is unfair (not least to those of us who are of that generation and by no means so purblind); but there is no question that the explanation is cultural rather than analytical. That is why it is an issue of such great concern that so many leading business figures, and their organizations, have entirely failed at the most senior levels to engage in the possibilities of these now near-universal applications of novel communication technologies.
When I read these reports, I have in mind Pascal’s Wager. In one of history’s most famous memes, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician threw down the gauntlet to those who claimed not to believe in God. If God does not exist there is no penalty for believing in him. And if he does exist, and is the kind of being who takes an interest in whether or not he has been believed in by humans (as the Judeo-Christian God plainly does), you will have, as it were, hell to pay if you fail to believe. Ergo: the rational person will believe. (Let’s not go into the question whether such a deity will look kindly upon persons deciding to believe in him as the result of a wager.)
But the point is important, in the context of fundamental shifts in social and cultural patterns which plainly have significant implications for every business (B2B as well as B2C) that go far beyond Web 1.0 catalog-ordering applications (though they should not be despised; the company named Amazon has done rather well off them). The difficulty in part lies in the fact that it is not easy to establish metrics for the effectiveness – beyond a further channel for ads and customer service –of engaging in something so wholly new as social presence. “Social” has been around for some years, and a further curiosity of the situation is the contrast between lingering uncertainty and disengagement at this point, and the very rapid pace of Moore’s-Law driven change at the level of technology. On the other hand, this contrast draws interesting attention to the fuzzy interface between digital and analog, and in particular advances in digital technology and what we may choose to call either the UX or the human dimension.
Back to point: the vertex of the triangle heavily filled with Fortune 500s even in 2013 is an oddity. It is also, potentially, on the assumption that there is some serious value to be gained from social technologies, an enormous area of opportunity; oil reserves that have yet to be explored, let alone valued, let alone exploited.
There are other ways into this debate. But I’d say to business leaders, first, don’t confuse your confusion with analysis (know your vertex!);l and, second, spend a little time thinking about Pascal. No-one is asking you to bet the farm (or build a 747). Just to consider whether a rational position might not be somewhere along the line between the two rational vertices. And, to my mind, to consider it well worth a serious bet that it lies at least near enough to the business 2.0 enthusiasts there may be serious moolah to be had.