Debate is raging in the blogosphere and traditional media alike on whether a new movement is needed, one that focuses on “quality” rather than quantity, one that says strong ties are all that matter, one that says that going big is selling out. Geoff Livingston says we need to “punk” social media, for instance, seeming to suggest that large-scale, “produced” efforts are akin to what Nirvana called the “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” I’m being tough on Geoff, who I think only accidentally aligned himself with the “pro snob” crowd, which apparently feels that our personal brands should all be the digital equivalent of hip Village boutiques–nichey places with few customers and more attitude than effect. (This also points out the ambiguity of Geoff’s message, since he seemed to be saying we should do and accomplish more — not less — which is a fairly ironic message to call “punk.” But I digress.)
I have been playing defense. I wrote How can we be too connected? and The social soul is being battled for–this week, trying to get a handle on this surge, which I believe is a watershed, something akin to the great phase changes of internets past. The quantity of discussion and the emotional reactions generated by these various questions indicates that answers will be long in coming. They are the quintessential conundrums of our times.
For Marcana readers, the question is really a practical one. Organizations need audiences, and the plain-as-your-nose truth of communications (though one that the punk crowd doesn’t much like to admit) is that it’s all persuasive. It’s all meant to win people. Trying to say we don’t have motives would be absurd. We all know the joke about the people who want to nonconform just like all their friends do. John Sayles coined the perfect metaphor for it: The Anarchists’ Convention (affiliate link).
The issue is a lot simpler for professional communicators, for whom finding receptive audiences and creating compelling messages is often explicitly what they’re being paid for.
The issue becomes, then–how big can it get and still be “real”?
The answers is: “Much bigger than you think.”
First, part of this has to do with our place and time. Until now, humans have never had the technological capacity to be part of groups the way we can today. We were limited by our eyes and ears, our geography, our broadcasting media, our largely one-to-one telephones. Today, we can send and receive social signals on a scale never imagined before. You can be standing at 17,000 feet at the Everest base camp and video chat to a loved one on the other side of the planet. Robert Scoble can carry his webcam-enabled laptop into a surprise audience with Mark Zuckerberg and open a live two-way interview for the hundred or so people who had been watching his live stream (which, incidentally, was a boring shot of some sandwiches for quite a while before that). Telepresence is a reality. I’m here to suggest, therefore, that a concomitant reconception of the appropriate size of a social circle needs to be undertaken, just as it did when the telegraph and then the telephone came along.
Second, what’s so wrong with being highly social, anyway (and do you hear Nigel Tufnel when you read that?)? I’ve been reading futurist Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization (affiliate link), and he makes a compelling argument that we’re hardwired for connections and that most of our problems arise from not being connected enough. (And before someone says we’re not really connecting online–and just try to tell that to someone who has–read the recent research showing that people feel more connected as the result of being online, even if they don’t see each other as much.) No less a personage than the Dalai Lama says, “Though people often laugh when I say it, I myself always want more friends.” Weak ties are fertile ground, and they are the glue of societies.
Now for the practical part: Scaling. I’ve written in the past about the band U2’s stage show, and how effectively they personalize the experience through set design, actual interest in the places they’re visiting, and a genuine love of their fans. You’ll meet very few former U2 fans–this band knows how to deliver, on a huge scale. Why is that? Part of it is the fact that scale is part of their identity. Fans enjoy sharing those experiences with many others; they expect it, even. So this is not to say that U2’s scale is effective for everyone–just that it can be done.
Or consider the Dalai Lama again. Here is a man who meets thousands of people a year, and yet he leaves a personal impression on an astonishing number of them. (That’s him in the picture above, by the way.) My wife tells this story: She was a photojournalist in Albuquerque when the Dalai Lama came to visit. She was part of a big crowd of press people following him as he toured the city. The entourage entered a local restaurant, where the staff brought the Dalai Lama a basket of sopaipillas, a local treat of deep-fried dough. The Dalai Lama looked my wife in the eye, pointed to the sopaipillas, smiled and rubbed his belly to show how much he planned to enjoy them. To this day, when my wife tells the story, it’s clear what a lasting connection he made through that one simple gesture. The Dalai Lama knows how to scale. He combines large-scale broadcast media with deeply personal acts to create not the sense that he is connected to every one who is interested in him but the sense that he could be.
The secret of scaling seems to be communicating to many people on a broad scale combined with communicating with some number of people in great depth — and then holding up those interactions in such a way that they illustrate something about yourself for many more people. Right about here, I expect that many people reading are feeling the bile rise. It sounds too calculating to them.
In many ways, this seems to be the core of the debate about scale. Opponents say it’s shallow. Proponents say it leaves open the possibility of depth.
It’s a question in many ways of authenticity. Ben & Jerry’s started life as a small-community brand and has struggled to fit into its corporate matrix without losing itself. A brand like Columbia strikes a better balance, perhaps. Even “causes” aren’t immune…some people become distrustful when nonprofit organizations get too big, even if that scale means economy and effectiveness. The issue is clearly fraught with risks. On the other hand, it’s pregnant with possibilities. By not scaling to an appropriate level–one that suits your product or organization or cause–you’re not fulfilling your mission. Don’t let fear be the guiding factor.
So much of this has to do with our inherent ambivalence about technology and mediation. We persist in seeing electronic interaction as less “real” than co-location. We’re always on the other side of a screen from someone, though. Our brains interpret signals from mechanical receptors and chemical transmitters to paint a picture of “reality.” When we talk on the phone, our voices are converted into electrical signals and re-created at the opposite end–you don’t actually “hear” my voice but a perfect reproduction, though I guarantee you’ll start really thinking about what “real” means if you really think about that. All reality is virtual. It’s time to stop thinking of electronic communication as subpar. In fact, for some things, it’s better than the old ways.
Here’s the basic point: If you want to grow–whether as a brand or as a person connected to other people in the world–do everything you can not to close the door to anyone. Imagine a business that told you, “Actually, please don’t fill out that customer contact card. We’re busy and just can’t be bothered with your interaction and keeping you up to date when you might never come back. Prove your connection to us and, after a while, maybe, we’ll return the favor.” Or being out in the world and someone saying, “Can I take a card so I keep up with what you’re doing?” and you saying, “Sure, but you can keep your card, because I know I won’t have time to care about it unless you change in some way that I can’t yet foresee.” You wouldn’t do those things in the “real” world, so why do them online? Yes, you’re going to end up with a lot more contacts than in the past. Get used to it–we live in a flat world in which, soon, anyone on the planet may hold your future livelihood in his or her hands.
On Facebook, I joked that we don’t need a social media Johnny Rotten, we need a social media Bob Dylan. I got lots of feedback. My point was only that we haven’t even reached the modern stage of social media, let alone the reactions to it. Punk got pwned a long time ago, my friends–it’s called postmodernism, and you really don’t want to live there. Let’s skip all that noise and work on being ourselves. OK?
So how will you react? Do you scale?