Friday, July 10, 2009

Social Media and Me

I tweet on Twitter, mostly about social media, although I wish there was a better word for it than "tweet." I do so for a simple reason -- electronic communication has been a considerable part of my professional career for 16 years. If we go back to the introduction of the desktop for professionals, then it's more like 25 years.

Twenty-five years. It sounds like a confession that I was there at the dawn of time. I have people working for me who weren't even born 25 years ago.

I don't know why I connected so easily to electronic communication, but I did. In 1993, a colleague attended a PR conference and heard about AT&T's email newsletter for employees. We talked about it and said, why not here, too? We had just reached critical mass for the number of employees on email distribution, and we said let's do it. It took three months to try to convince IT it was a good idea. And they still said no. Then I realized I didn't need their permission. That's a story by itself and the subject of another blog post soon, but I learned that experts invariably are the people who stand in the way of innovation, including in my own organization, where Public Affairs people told me no one cared what went on in different parts of the corporation.

IT and Public affairs were both wrong.

We launched the email newsletter with a list of 100 people, covering all global regions and an extraordinary array of computers and operating systems (this was in the days before the business world was ruled from Redmond, Washington). Within a week, the list had grown to 1,500. Within two weeks, we had saturated the entire email distribution. Our little email newsletter had actually gone viral all on its own, forwarded and publicized by word-of-mouth, before anyone had even heard of the idea of "going viral." Remember, this was 1993.

For a long time, we flew under the radar of Law and Human Resources, which turned out to be a good thing. We didn't ask or seek approval for anything we published. We just did it, but checked all quotes with sources. Then employees figured out we weren't censoring letters to the editor. Before long, we were moderating internal debates and extensive discussions on business issues and getting answers for some of the inanities that pass for corporate policies. By the time we got discoverd by Law and HR, even the CEO was hooked. And he told them to leave us alone, because something extraordinary was happening -- the corporation was treating its employees like they had fully functioning brains. Like adults.

No one was more shocked by this than me, the instigator of it all. I spent the next year trying to understand what had happened, including why I of all people, the speechwriting guy, for goodness sakes, the word guy, had fallen so fast and so hard for electronic communication.

I finally understood what had happened. I was so comfortable moving across different communication media in speeechwriting (see the blog post below this one) that electronic stuff was almost a no-brainer. If you can create communication using word, mouth, eye and ear, you can do the electronic stuff. There's even a theory about it -- Walter Ong's secondary orality.

From email we moved to the web, and created the company's first web site. And there's another story -- one of the most visionary IT people I knew told me at the time to ignore the web because it was just a fad, like eight-track tapes back in the 1970s. He insisted that the future was -- drumroll, please -- Lotus Notes. And he was serious.

A whole series of corporate reorganizations intervened after that; I went off and did my own thing for a while and eventually ended up back in a corporate Public Affairs department. In the meantime, I'd stayed familiar with electronic communication, even through the great internet business implosion in 2000 and 2001. I was hired to do good old-fashioned issues management, but I brought my electronic luggage with me. And the day came when someone in a staff meeting asked, "What's a blog?"

From that question, it eventually became this. Even some of the people who don't like my company took notice, and reprinted this on their own web site.

So that's why I tweet what I tweet on Twitter. It's electronic, to be sure, but it's really about people -- connecting with them, building relationships with them, and creating something new with them.

1 comment:

Tripp Frohlichstein said...

What a fascinating history - and well written - reads like a great story!