We need to work on the 'social' part of social media

By Mike Cook
Special to the Bellingham Business Journal

Recently I was reading a review of the extraordinary growth of social media tools over the past five years.

As I was reading I flashed back to a conference I attended in the mid-1990s. While there I attended a session featuring a panel of people responsible for search engine development and innovation. If you remember names like Alta Vista, Lycos, Netscape, Magellan and others you know the kinds of people I was listening to: pioneering, brazen, hip and bright.

The central topic of the conversation that morning in Silicon Valley was how to address and close the widening gap between the rapidly developing online communications tools and people’s actual interpersonal skills. In the view of the developers on the panel the full value of the internet, or any intranet, as a communication medium would not be realized until this gap was addressed. For these experts, there was not in their minds evidence that this gap had even been recognized. Following the panel presentation the audience proceeded to engage in a number of rowdy arguments, effectively proving the point the panel experts were making!

In another recent incident I had occasion to reflect on just how best to approach the continuous process of presenting the case for the power of context, the bane of all amateur communicators, which means most of us. More specifically, how does our limited appreciation for context continue to undermine the power of rapidly evolving social media tools?  I was staying at a friend’s house overnight. She needed to make a trip to the grocery store. On her way out the door she shouted over her shoulder, “If you are hungry there is pasta salad in the fridge!” Pasta salad, pasta salad, when we did we start calling cold pasta in a bowl a salad? “Salad” has been confusing to me for some time, since I was a kid, but I have learned to live with and am for the most part at peace with its seeming ambiguity. I now know that the seeming endless procession of salads in life is constrained only by the boundaries of definition:

salad, noun: a cooked or uncooked food prepared with a savory or piquant dressing and usually served cold. (This definition does not include German potato salad which is of course always best served warm!)

However, a couple of years back another friend, a mischief maker I might add, turned my salad world on its ear one evening when he posed this scenario; “If you see chopped up vegetables in a bowl, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, etc. you readily recognize that mixture as salad. What if you dump those same elements out onto the table, is it still a salad? For a moment time stood still, and then I got his point, when we see something out of the context we expect it is sometimes hard to recognize it for what it really is. Are we not the same way about people and the messages they carry?

One of your newer employees makes a suggestion, you try not to roll your eyes and say you’ll get back to them on that. Someone you consider an expert says the very same thing and suddenly you are urgent about the whole matter.

Yes, Twitter is great, so is email, texting and all the rest. LinkedIn can be a remarkable resource for inter-company communication. However, until we address our ignorance and apathy around the power of context we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over. We will confuse the message and the messenger, we will take opinions as facts because of the source, we will apply discounts to information presented from certain sources or simply ignore the information altogether. In short we will undermine the social media tools we and/or our company have invested in because we have not advanced our communication practices to match the power of the tools at our disposal. We still do not recognize that value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Whose communications do you regularly discount because 1) they have been wrong before, 2) they haven’t been around long enough, 3) they are part of “them”?

What could you do to intervene in this pattern and why would you bother? Whose communications do you accept without question? Why? Might it be worth challenging the source periodically?

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