What’s the point of social media? Liam Barrington-Bush of more like people recently characterised the way third sector organisations answer this question with three crude (his word, not mine) categories.
In his own words, organisations see social media as:
1. The new fax machine. It’s a tool that gets given to a low-ranking member of staff to handle, with little-to-no autonomy or recognition of its significance. ‘One tweet per week’ kinda thing. Where lots of organisations were a few years ago, and at least a few still are… The point tends to be to keep up with the Joneses, ‘cause others are doing it. Nothing more.
2. The social engineering project. Highly specialised digital teams that add up lots of metrics and then conflate them with campaign success or failure. This tends to involve lots of assumptions about the people who support us, boxing them into demographic groups and feeding them lowest-common-denominator (clicktivist) actions based on those assumptions. The point to this approach tends to be bigger numbers, and that more = better. This is obviously true in many situations, but can be a misleading metric of success in many others, if it is a kind of involvement that minimises what people feel they are able to offer to a cause, to give people something that is likely to boost total figures.
3. The more like people organisation. Everyone who wants to tweets, blogs, shares, etc. The tone is less managed, the line between staff, members, beneficiaries, supporters, etc is blurred as freer conversations emerge within and around the organisation. There is an honesty and openness rarely found in many more traditional organisations. These conversations lead to freer collaborations and faster responsiveness, as important information tends to travel where it needs to more effectively through networks than hierarchies. The point becomes about nurturing stronger relationships, which lead to more resilient networks. This stuff is far harder to measure, but comes from a deep belief that if we aren’t building stronger networks amongst those who care about our work, we are making ourselves very vulnerable to a range of outside shocks that might make top-down campaigning models more difficult or impossible (laws, tech changes, natural disasters, etc). It also recognises that there is vast untapped potential within and around organisations, that our structures prevent us from realising, and which social media has the potential to open-up, through freer connections between people, ideas, and those needed to make them happen.
This last one is much closer to how social movements tend to organise, and I’d argue that it offers the most potential significance and impact for organisations, because it can start to model new ways of organising that move beyond the Industrial-era hierarchies most of our organisations have ended up adopting over the course of several decades, which have come at massive cost to the people and causes we champion.
What can this tell us about the values likely to be engaged in staff and supporters by these different approaches, and what are the implications?