The democratisation of voice.
The one-to-many broadcasting services exemplified by Facebook and Twitter are changing the world. Providing people with a free1 means to communicate and share ideas to any peer empowers individuals to participate in the information economy in an unprecedented capacity. Groups can now organise and politicise where coordination was previously impossible. The Arab Spring is the exemplar of this. However, institutional authorities will continue to perceive people mobilising as a threat and react in part through censorship, not just in the Arab world. The clearest example of an institutionalised response to lost control (power) is the NSA's grotesque and systemic mass surveillance programme.
In a business context, social media platforms have also caused power to shift from organisations to people. An organisation no longer controls its communications channels absolutely – rather people engage in dialogue with organisations (Twitter, Facebook) as well as coordinate on platforms that express their interests and values, such as creative projects (Kickstarter), seed funding (Angellist), social good (Change.org) and so on. The initial response by organisations to mitigate lost power in this altered environment has been to monitor activity – illustrated by the wave of measurement and analytics services available to organisations to monitor social media. The parallels to the NSA reaction are clear, albeit benign and on a smaller scope. For an organisation to succeed in its stated mission, it must control the environment it operates in as best it can.
Trust as an alternative to control.
While attempting to regain control seems a natural reaction to increasing complexity and diminishing means, it may not be the optimum strategy in this case.
People are obviously hyper-social – we create insanely complex social structures comprising many cooperating and competing groups, often hierarchical and inequitable. Interaction between people is also governed by norms of behaviour within groups and often ritualised. Conceptually, the web may be best thought of as a tool enabling humans to do what we have always done – communicate, express ourselves (language or artistic), exchange ideas and organise into groups. The disconnect for brands occurs therefore, when social media is perceived purely as a communication channel akin to advertising, rather than a connection layer atop existing social structures.
The requisite element enabling people to group together – the cohesive that glues together all the craziness around us into society – is trust.2 Trust is the reason the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government operate in public. Trust is the reason we use Visa and Mastercard to pay for goods and services. Trust is the reason Apple Touch ID is a new frontier.3 Trust – or rather absolving the need to trust – is the reason BitCoin relies on complex mathematics to validate transactions.
Brands are just as connected to that which makes us human as anything else. Brands are language.4 Brands are the symbolic representation of the experiences and trust that people hold for an organisation and that which it brings into the world. On the web and on social media platforms, the collective consciousness is merely amplified through connectivity and rendered transparent from universal access. At its core a brand is still the experiences we have of it and the trust that develops overtime – and like any person we connect with, our medium to communicate is language.5
1. Social media services are not absolutely free because they require connection to the web, although this cost to connect is relatively small.↩
2. I am not a sociologist so do not speak with expertise, rather experience.↩
3. Here is a company that can identify us uniquely as individual people, something no government can attest to.↩
4. According to Wikipedia, language is "the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, and a language is any specific example of such a system". I will post more about this topic in future.↩