A friend who is a community manager challenged me recently with the idea that people are doing nothing really new with social media. All that has happened, he argued, is that conversations have moved from one place to another, but people are still people and none of all the new technology has really changed how they behave. This came up in response to my posting about social media answering strong demand for people to connect with one another.
There is something fundamentally new about social media, which is slowly reshaping our view of the world – the fact that it is full of self-organizing phenomena. The Internet itself is self-organizing; nobody is in charge. The most successful social media venues are self-organizing, if only because they grow and operate on scales where that’s the only way they can exist. There is a historical context to this change.
The medieval world-view was primarily hierarchical. The source of order in the world was hierarchical authority, which led to ideas that seem bizarre today, such as the custom that the length of your sword (or even the right to carry one) depended on your position in the social hierarchy. The Enlightenment brought forth any number of models based on self-regulation – democracy, capitalism and evolution, to name three ideas that transformed the world. Those ideas arose partly from the challenge posed by self-regulating machinery – clockworks were the first widely encountered ones – which were somewhat inexplicable in a hierarchical world-view. Another invention based on self-regulation through mechanical feedback, Watt’s steam engine (his innovation was the regulator), also transformed the world.
In a world where we are still trying to figure out appropriate balances between the freedoms of self-regulation and hierarchical control (consider mortgage-backed securities, for example) we are faced with an innovation, the Internet itself, where order emerges from a set of simple rules (protocols) interacting on a vast scale, raising the possibility and need for models that transcend hierarchies and feedback loops. Welcome to the confusing world of self-organization.
What this means for those of us who create and manage social media technologies is that it is often a mistake to depend on authority based on hierarchy or feedback. In other words, heavy-handed management will usually backfire because people will depart for places it doesn’t exist. Voting may be entertaining, even informative, but a social network that are regulated primarily by feedback are also likely to be abandoned in favor of those where the primary authority model is the network’s self-organization. This also means that keeping protocols simple and open is essential to success unless you really think your social network can survive as an island.
In terms of measurement, the self-organizing nature of today’s social media calls for metrics that reveal the patterns that emerge from the participants’ large-scale interaction. These are the qualities that get attention – witness the idea of the “long tail” – not a measurement, but a pattern. The “90/9/1 rule” is a pattern. Same for “Groundswell.”
I think that some of the coolest work being done today, if not the most profitable in the long run, calls for having the intuition to see patterns and the insight to figure out what they mean.