I’m working on a presentation about social media (my full-time job) (except for the other stuff that’s not social media), and I deliberately carved out some time to think about the impact it’s having on the work that I’ve been associated with for more than 35 years.
You have to carve out the time – block out the calendar and close the office door, or find a space if you occupy a cubicle – to think. Social media has a tendency to make you do that – forcibly block out the time to think, that is.
The first indication I had of the personally transformative impact of social media happened three years. I was giving a speech in New York – and the editor of a trade publication was livetweeting my speech. The people back at the office – and those in the room with access – were following what I said and how I answered questions. Fortunately, everything went well.
That doesn’t happen all the time when a speech is livetweeted. There are plenty of stories of what happened when an executive’s speech was livetweeted – and people in the audience started following the tweets – and people inside and outside the room started fact-checking – and all of it was being tweeted and retweeted. The people in the room began to talk among themselves, and the speech (and the speaker) ended up trashed.
This is the world of social media. Remember Toyota’s problem with reports of brakes failing? It started as a single tweet on Twitter. It ended months later in a government exoneration – but Toyota went through a smashed quality reputation for a considerable period of time.
At work we’ve learned that Twitter and Facebook function like headline news alerts. We see information faster on Twitter than you can get via Google news alerts. Beyond just alerts, social media collectively is replacing traditional journalism as news sources. A business journalist writing for CNBC recently pointed out that his main sources of information have dramatically shifted – today, he relies upon StockTwits.
First lesson: With social media and the ease of using the various channels, everyone has become a journalist. Traditional journalism has been in decline for years. It’s not dead, and it won’t die anytime soon, but its power and influence are much reduced from 30 and 40 years ago.
Related to that is the second lesson: Expertise counts for less than it once did; influence is what matters now. If people trust you as a source, they will believe most if not all of what you say and likely retweet it on Twitter and share it or like it on Facebook. And who needs experts anyway if you can find everything you need online?
This is especially frustrating for people with expertise. People with PhDs in one of the sciences, say biochemistry, are shocked to learn that what they say will usually count less than an actress or a popular book author. Our culture’s fixation with celebrity has contributed to this. The inability of a lot of experts to speak in understandable language is also a factor. Plus experts are usually (and rightfully) cautious; they know what all the studies and tests and evidence say and how far they can go with that; people on social media have no compunction about proclaiming something – no matter how ridiculous – as true.
These changes suggest a third lesson – social media inevitably cause conflict within an organization. Employees have access to more information than ever, including bad news. Traditional communication departments struggle to deal with what looks like the Wild West, a free-for-all and total chaos. Many executives deliberately choose not to involve themselves in Twitter and Facebook, and so don’t understand what it’s about, how to deal with it, and how to resource it.
A fourth lesson: you can’t not participate, even if it’s only to watch and monitor, learn and understand. Many public relations people will tell you that you can’t properly do any communications job today without being at least involved in and have an understanding of social media. And no matter what kind of work we do, if we’re working for an organization, we’re communicators, no matter what the work at hand is.
And someone out there is tweeting the kind of work you do, posting it on Facebook, creating a short video for YouTube, blogging about it, adding photos to Pinterest and Flickr, creating a new App for your phone and a new iBook for your iPad. (If you want a good example of how an entire industry can be transformed in a fairly short period of time, look at the publishing industry.)
It’s all changing. Yes, it’s wild. But participation is no longer an option.