Last week I dragged my wife to an 80’s extravaganza: a Van Halen concert with Kool & the Gang as the opener! The dancing displays of the crowd of forty- and fifty-somethings must have been a sight to behold. The adrenaline rush provided by the loud rock ‘n roll and the chance to be kids again in the dark, loud anonymity of the arena was just the release we middle-aged corporate types (gasp!) needed.
A day or so later, after my ears had stopped ringing, I read an excellent post from Steve Blank which, among other things, makes the great point that, while we’re starting to understand how social media is virtualizing the fulfillment of our needs for problem solving and human interactions, this process has only just begun. What we have now is good, but this industry remains in its infancy, and we have no idea how the new realm of human interactions will shake itself out. For now, it seems that, to find the nuggets that address our needs, we slog through a lot of feckless check-ins (Dude, I’m at Starbucks!), cute pics of our kids, poorly exposed snapshots of rock concerts (guilty) and tons of junk advertising.
Why? As consumers, we can easily get information that’s interesting to us on our own terms. As producers, we can quickly build connections with a broad audience on terms that are very inexpensive and of relatively low risk. All of that’s great, to the point of saying, “who cares where this is heading, let’s have fun now!” One problem: there’s something more there that we all want to tap into, but how do you provide the intimacy that is a fundamental element of human interactions, particularly if you are a “corporate” information producer?
When I was in business school in the late 80’s/early 90’s, our professors were rightfully preoccupied with making sure we were prepared to be the first generation of young managers who would spend their entire careers in the post Title VII-era. However, as legal doctrine was translated into policies & procedures which evolved into employee training & discipline, it seemed that anything that could be considered offensive to anyone had to be stricken from our communications, even our non-verbal behaviors. Furthermore, as our legal environment became more complicated over the next couple of decades, the chilling effect on our communications caused them to become more and more sanitized in content and reactionary in purpose.
For me, this process reached its zenith when we registered Prommis for an IPO – thereafter it seemed like everything I said, wrote or did in public had to have the pre-approval of a veritable phalanx of lawyers and public relations consultants around the country! As a result, the rise of social media for me was akin to what it was when, as a kid, you watched your friend play with THE new, cool toy your parents wouldn’t buy for you (in my case, the Atari 2600 – I longed to play Space Invaders at home on my own machine!). I chafed under the straightjacket the well-meaning attorneys and media had tailored for me while other, less encumbered leaders and business professionals got to play with each month’s new, exciting social media outlet flavor.
More importantly and all toy envy aside, as the leader of a large services business, culture was my highest priority. Slowing, cleansing and reducing my communications was antithetical to my priorities and leadership style. When I was finally released from the strictures of being “in registration” I dived into the “traditional” social media outlets. At first, I didn’t know what I was doing and couldn’t quite understand the attraction. However, as I got used to the waters, I began to be more open in my communications, writing my posts to the friends I was having coffee with in the virtual world of social media. Communications became fast, real, and voluminous (and hopefully meaningful). Much better.
What did the feedback show? What we already know: we have to be real. Effective communication requires intimacy. Communications that invoke true human emotions and experiences are easily digested, so we keep coming back for more. In contrast, we automatically discount – if not outright reject – messages that are detached, disingenuous, and ambiguous. Notice that the demand for intimacy does not stop at the walls of your organization; rather, it’s audience agnostic. Arguably, messaging in the social media realm requires even more “realness” given the overwhelming noise in the channel. There are very good reasons for corporate legal and procedural review processes, however, something’s gotta give.
Where should you place your bet? Mine is that successful leaders and their organizations will have chosen more, open, frank, human intimacy in their communications. Take as a supporting example our professional sports leagues in America: aside from the actual games, the buying audience seems to live off of the soap opera-esque antics of the owners, players, coaches, and media types who cover them. The tweets of presumably very busy, highly sophisticated club owners are now “news” – but only if they’re timely, frank, and emotion-packed (to the point of being controversial!).
At our concert, Van Halen opened with the classic Unchained and blew the roof off of the place. In the dark of the coliseum, moms and dads indulged in the unique human expression of dancing (sometimes with their kids!). Points of light flared up occasionally but, instead of the cigarette lighters of old, the flashes originated from camera phones held high to record the scene.
Hmmm. These days the cops don’t seem to hassle the kids so much. Maybe, just maybe, that’s ok.
Unchained, and nothin’ stays the same . . .
Sorry for the length of the post – there’s just too much to say about social media – but there will be other days, so enough for now. In the meantime, thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding, re-tweeting, etc.