There is something quite new about social media, and it is not that it’s providing on a huge scale (of hundreds of millions) volunteer contributors of “content” that in weird and wonderful ways deliver huge sums (of billions) to those lucky entrepreneurs whose projects made it big. Well, OK, it is partly that. But if that is how we are looking at the #socmed phenomenon, we give evidence of something between severe myopeia and locked-in syndrome.
Twitter faces a double problem here. First, because of the tendency to group “social media” together (Pinterest and Twitter have about as much in common as the Stock Exchange and a town hall meeting – oh yes, people, large public rooms, engagement). From one angle it is one of the Big Four, with Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube. But that is the least interesting angle.
Second, because the world of media properties sees social media as just another one, disruptive in its own way, vacuuming up global advertising dollars and offering new channels for content acquisition and delivery, but essentially same old, same old.
These fallacies – for fallacies they are – are shared by many in the C Suites of the aforementioned companies, which may seem odd. But consider: Facebook, the social media property of social media properties, is is run with all the social sensitivity and engagement of Big Oil, or Big Banking. Or, interestingly, the Murdoch news empire (whatever its latest name is). Look at Facebook’s share structure/governance, and at its engagement with its user base (remember the shananigans over voting for changes? o my goodness). It is one of the least “social” companies on the planet.
Point is: There is something profound and new about “social,” but it is as subtle as it is profound, and it has left many of the engineer-innovators who gave us these behemoths as high and dry as that big majority of Fortune 500 C Suite execs who neither understand nor even use it. The point is substantive and cautionary. I do believe social is revolutionary, for business as well as for government. But these are early days, and it’s not easy to demonstrate.
What I was hoping for from the big social innovators was that they would buy deeply into the culture they were helping create. If that had happened, instead of tedious IPOs exposing these complex ecosystems to traditional market forces, we would see the development of innovative models for governance and financing. Sure, let the entrepreneurs be rewarded, and let revenue models emerge for their creations. But within structures of shared governance, whether within traditional non-profit models (a la Wikipedia, and four cheers for the great Jimmy Wales), or mutualization (users are the stockholders), or something smart we have yet to devise. These subtle products of the new economy are simply treated, when the time comes, as old economy entities. Social media cry out to be handled as our supreme social enterprise companies.
As for Twitter itself, on which have written many times – while it has many uses (and I don’t mind if you want to follow Bieber’s publicist or your favorite brand’s marketing department, really I don’t), at its innovative heart it has developed what I’ve called a “Reciprocal Knowledge Engine” – a core mechanism for handling the explosion of knowledge, at the same time as opening up knowledge networks for much wider participation, to the massive benefit of all concerned. I trust this will survive the handing over of this precious thing to the more rudimentary end of the marketplace.