The Social Media story so far
Just a year ago, social media was still considered a very new ‘thing’. A few sites such as Facebook had been used as a private social network but the mass adoption of Twitter (and a number of other real time open networks) dramatically increased the acceptance of social networks as a valuable source of current information. The networks allow individuals to become news generators by instantaneously capturing events in images, text and video as the events themselves, happen. Smart phone technology enables individuals to become stand-alone broadcasters, however, it would be naive to think that this content came ‘value free’. Along with the liberalisation of news generation, comes the rich and complex mix of opinions and ‘calls to action’ that need to be translated into rationalised comment and publicly supported opinions.
How social media changed the world
More and more people are adopting smart phone technology and are accessing social media channels as a real time form of information. A growing utilisation of this channel has been seen and this can range from social campaigns, to news, business and more recently, social demonstrations and public protest. In previous years, a public demonstration as large as that which has been witnessed by Egypt would have required a group to plan, allocate resources and communicate intent in order to mobilise such a large number of individuals to publicly demonstrate for a given cause. With the advent of social media channels, individuals can easily attract a following (which could grow exponentially) by swarming the news through social interaction in order to morph into sophisticated responses to state action.
Speed and implementation
During the UK student demonstrations of 2010, individuals plotted the location of the police cordons and checkpoints using Google Maps. They reported events and shared information across a wider group/following using Twitter hash tags (#) whilst also using Facebook as a single-source information portal for management coordination. Through the use of these standard social channels, the demonstrators had a robust information architecture that could be used as an off-the-shelf solution to providing situational awareness. The willingness for individuals to access this information enabled the demonstration to organise civil disobedience in a far more effective way than previously possible.
Size is no measure of success in social media: A lesson from the US v Wikileaks
Alongside the student demonstrations in the UK, the news site Wikileaks gathered momentum/interest in the confidential transcripts, reports and photographs obtained from the US state department, which it began publishing. The US attempted to close down the site by pressurising associated third parties (such as credit card companies and hosting sites). However, Wikleaks transformed its publishing capability in real time, swapping servers and asking wider groups of interested social networks to support their campaign by publishing, hosting and securitising data on the organisation’s behalf. It quickly became apparent that the US could not effectively prevent the publication of the sensitive information and the nation later changed its tactics.
The spread of social media as a disruptive asymmetric capability
From Egypt to Tunisia, Algiers, Bahrain and Iran, we have witnessed a wave of social demonstration. Some demonstrations have led to the toppling of regimes, which appeared to have been seen as secure organisations operating in stable countries. All these demonstrations have utilised popular social media to organise and coordinate mass social demonstration.
What are the lessons for business and social media?
Some countries and state organisations have ignored social media at their peril. Business has become global and spans vast social groups; meaning effective engagement with communities of practitioners is a critical part of corporate social responsibility. However, these channels are not mere publishing channels - engagement needs to be shaped and needs to be appropriate. There are businesses today that feel insulated by the sheer size of their organisational reach (some customer service teams reflect this attitude), however, there is a growing capability for individuals to galvanise wider social action. As seen in recent international events, this can have significant consequences for business.
Strategy and management of social media
Increasingly, it is important for business to have a wider social media strategy. Understanding how their brand is portrayed and understood in this real time media is critical for strategic management. Capability needs to be generated, empowered by and interactive with these dynamic channels. Clear objectives must be defined and investment in resources needs to be prioritised to ensure that risk is not only mitigated, but value is also created.