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I received an email today letting me know that a friend had just passed away after complications arose during her surgery last week. She was part of the community of friends Yvette and I have made after we bought our home in France and while we were not intimate; she was always someone I looked forward to seeing. She will be greatly missed.
I was set on the path of buying that home in France after a business lunch about four years ago. There was nothing remarkable or unusual about the lunch, the company or the circumstances – but after a conversation about travel, I realized in an instant that I no longer lived life with spontaneity or adventure. Rather, I lived a life of plans… long term plans stretching years into the future and centered on career, financial stability and one-week vacations. These are all worthy things but they aren’t the only things worth consideration when living a life.
We get lost in our planning; thinking that we can control the future if we can just find the right method – be it the Atkins diet or Six Sigma. Of course this is folly. There are too many unknown unknowns that evade the best of plans. In that battle for the future we often lose the present, timeless joys that are almost always near at hand – a well-cooked meal, conversation with friends, a quiet, lazy afternoon with a book.
We also labor hard without really knowing why. Our work life increasingly consumes our attention and, like ants working on a project whose outer precincts we cannot conceive, we toil for some obscure institutional good that isn’t personally gratifying and that takes us away from the immediacy of life.
So with that jolt that only a death seems to initiate, I am recommitting to planning my life in months – not years; and to finding the good things near-at-hand.
BPGlobalPR, the fake Twitter account mocking BP has , at the time of this writing, over 150,000 followers. It is dark humor – but it is humorous.
Many people have taken to social media to vent their frustration and anger over the oil spill. There are myriad blog posts, great ongoing conversation at the OilDrum, and the Twitter hashtags (#oilspill and #oilpocalypse) are a steady stream of regular people discussing the disaster.
BP’s response? Its war-room legions of crisis managers have bought keywords in order to direct search queries to its own story (“learn more about how BP is helping”), it has tried to shut down the fake Twitter account and it has produced pricey television ads (links to aforementioned are intentionally absent). In both cases the predictable result has been more bad press and ill will.
I have seen many back channel emails. tweets and posts from the social media cognoscenti on the subject of how BP should be using social media. In one sense the entire question seems misplaced – after all, who cares how BP uses social media during a crisis of biblical proportion? Isn’t the more potent question how society can benefit from social media rather than the offending corporation? The answer to why so much time is spent on what BP can do resides in no small part I believe to the fact that social media consultants earn their bread from corporations. Fair enough.
But my original and still current opinion is that BP should be doing nothing with social media. They should be doing nothing other than trying to fix their apocalyptic problem. Any other actions appear to detract from the task at hand and BP has proven itself incapable of wielding social tools (more on that later). Beyond my sage words of wisdom for BP, I have a bigger issue with the nature of the advice being given by my colleagues.
A few days ago one of leading proponents of social business, The Dachis Group, posted Would Being More Social Help BP? The article suggests many ways in which BP could utilize social technologies to address the oil spill – and implicitly (as the title suggests) improve their reputation.
In the technical, jargon-heavy language that typifies the Dachis Group’s approach to social business the post states:
BP can leverage the power of social tools to help their current situation – but only if all current business processes are aligned and calibrated for social activation.
Huh? The post puts forward a series of one-line ideas for BP – some ideas are as interesting as they are unlikely; “an app to let people report affected areas and wildlife” for example seems a bit far-fetched when you consider that BP is actively trying to minimize assessments of damage in order to maintain their prime directive, shareholder value (each barrel may cost BP up to $40K). Some ideas are slightly appalling, “a private market research community made up of carefully selected consumers to begin to test public messaging” — do we really need message testing on this one?
This leads me to the heart of my issue with this specific post – and by extension all posts of its ilk that speculate about what BP could do without trying to come to terms with who BP are as an institution. BP is a profit-engine. BP is not a social business. And “helping BP” has nothing to do with technology, tools, apps or “social calibration.” Being social as a business is a way of treading lightly because you recognize your interconnection with the world around you. BP is not structured to be social – it is structured to be profitable at all costs… and structure drives behavior. The Gulf Coast is currently bearing the brunt of their corporate behavior. What’s more, the moment to help itself has long passed…
To be clear, I believe that social technologies put selection pressures on businesses over the long run – and will make it harder and harder for corporate profiteers to thrive. This to me is the promise of social business — over time, businesses that abide by a social contract (respect, authenticity, reciprocity, earned trust etc.) will outperform those that abide by a strictly corporate (or legal) contract.
BP has consistently shown a tin ear to the outrage, hurt and devastation that they are causing. That again emanates from a business culture – and no amount of technology will be a balm to that malady.
I understand that BP is a stand-in for “corporate crisis” and social media pundits (I am not exempt) are using it to speculate on just how they might utilize these tools in a crisis setting. I am also not trying to single out this single post. But for me it is exemplary of how much and how often the social media conversation misses the entire point. The post ends:
Of course, for these efforts to be successful, they would have to be planned, heavily moderated, highly coordinated, and integrated with current data and information systems – then communicated to consumers, franchise owners, the media, and government officials. In other words, all social business systems would have needed to be in place before disaster struck.
Best of luck with that. BP’s entire culture appears to have been one in denial about this being possible in the first place (for more on that see Cheney‘s energy task force statement on the riskless nature of deep water drilling)…
The nature of public outrage is not something that BP can (or should) try to game for their own benefit. The more BP tries to enter a conversation, the more they will be torn apart. Like the angry mobs that drove Emperor Justinian from the Hippodrome to barricade himself in his palace… this mob doesn’t want conversation… they want blood.
I don’t want BP to “join the conversation.” I want them to fix the problem.
I was struck by a posting in the New York Times on how the food industry is responding to calls to reduce the use of salt in processed food. It seemed the industry’s response is mirror of how Facebook has responded to privacy concerns. From the article:
Now, the [food] industry is blaming consumers for resisting efforts to reduce salt in all foods, pointing to, as Kellogg put it in a letter to a federal nutrition advisory committee, “the virtually intractable nature of the appetite for salt”
The food industry’s argument is best summarized as follows,”People want salt – and we are just following the demand.” Yet salt is a cheap ingredient that serves a multiplicity of purposes that redound to the industry’s benefit:
Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”
Salt also works in tandem with fat and sugar to achieve flavors that grip the consumer and do not let go — an allure the industry has recognized for decades. “Once a preference is acquired,” a top scientist at Frito-Lay wrote in a 1979 internal memorandum, “most people do not change it, but simply obey it.”
The issue here is that the food industry is (rather transparently) protecting their own self interest by claiming that rather than leading, they are simply following customer demand. This total abdication of (1) reality and (2) responsibility is reprehensible when what lies on the other side of the equation is a human death toll. As the article points out, “Government health experts estimate that deep cuts in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.”
Now here comes the stretch… What is the difference between the food industry’s stance on salt and Facebook’s stance on privacy?
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated,
People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.
The consistent argument is that people have an “insatiable appetite” for sharing, that privacy is dead and that this is a positive social development. This spin on privacy is also an abdication of reality and corporate responsibility. Studies (and common sense) show that people ARE concerned with privacy (see the Pew Study below). While it is true that people love to share – they are also concerned with their privacy.
Facebook’s value as a business is all about harvesting their user’s data for targeted advertising, sale to search engines, and intranetwork commerce (mainly in virtual goods etc). The argument of trailing social norms is an argument of convenience and it is one we shouldn’t accept.
I had the privilege to present at Web 2.0 Expo this past week. Here is the SlideShare presentation: Building a Social Business. I tend to hew to Stowe Boyd’s definition of a Social Business,
A social business is an organization designed consciously around sociality and social tools, as a response to a changed world and the emergence of the social web, including social media, social networks, and a long list of other advances.
Ideally, a Social Business creates a human-scale organization – one with more points of contact with the outside world, one where information flows more freely in all directions, one that is responsive to community, one that inherently cares about those it engages in business with; one that deals honestly and constructively with the world around it because it is part of (and depends upon) the same social group. A social business builds awesome products, designs awesome services because (1) it actively seeks to know and care about its customers and (2) it relies on customer communities to carry the flag as evangelists and advocates.
When I teamed up with Forbes to produce a series on etiquette in the age of social networks (Social Sense and Sensibility) it was driven by a simple idea: unique cultures and social norms develop around online communities. You ignore them at your peril.
The story of the social web is a story about how people, when given the ability to freely communicate – do so in great numbers. And when they do they abide by social rules (be yourself, listen, build relationships through give and take etc.). Hence, Social Tools Follow Social Rules (the current tagline of this blog). When people are allowed to exercise their innate drive to be social they expect the companies they interact with, and work for, to get social as well. Thus social rules become the new rules of doing business. This is the sea change and breakthrough insight (in my opinion of course) that explains much of the discomfort and missteps that corporations are making when entering the fray. Behaving like a corporation (impersonal press releases, constant self-aggrandizing and selling in every communication etc.) in a social medium makes you look like a psychopath.
Online etiquette isn’t just for business – it applies to everyone.
Precisely because it is a social medium, online exchanges are full of the same issues that exist offline; rude behavior, bullying, slander and so on. In fact, online communications often stimulate bad behavior since the online environment lacks physical cues and distances the speaker from the consequences of their speech. Just take a look at YouTube comments and you get a sense of how a social environment, lacking any controls or community norms can quickly spiral out of control.
So it was that I came to watch my colleague, Bill Evans, speaking on CNBC about the recent Facebook suicide incident. In short, a teenage girl committed suicide, apparently after being bullied… much of it via Facebook. I am a bit discomforted by two elements of the story. First, that it is a story in the first place (more on that later). Second, some of the implied responsibility on Facebook as a platform to monitor and control conversations that take place there.
Bill does a great job, especially in pointing out that responsibility for maintaining decorum needs to be distributed across every person with a stake in it; parents, teachers, friends and Facebook. His counterpart, Joel Reidenberg, from the Center on Law & Information Policy at Fordham University, makes solid points as well – specifically pointing at simple feedback mechanisms that would allow users themselves to flag abuse (however since Facebook relies on you actively choosing who your friends are the notion of a “report abuse” button seems a bit odd). But he does slip in one idea that, while it sounds great on T.V. is, to me, hopelessly unrealistic. Essentially Reidenberg seems to charge Facebook with responsibility to police etiquette of its users by monitoring the substance of their conversation. Sounds great and he implies that we have the technology to do this. Well, theoretically yes. We can apply data analysis to unstructured text but it is a very imperfect art since language (especially among youth) is in constant flux. Consider for instance that saying “your are sick” can often be a compliment. But when you digest a few statistics about Facebook the practical implications get mind boggling:
There are 400 million (and growing) people on Facebook. Only 30% of them are within the U.S.
More than 5 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.) are shared each week
About 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States (mostly using non English languages)
There are more than 70 translations are available on the site
Facebook employees roughly 300 engineers. That is a ratio of over 1 million users for every single engineer working at Facebook. Obviously the first issue that gets raised is whether such monitoring and flagging is even a technically reasonable request. Do you end that responsibility with U.S. citizens or is this a global effort? The bigger issue gets to who is responsible for ensuring social etiquette online in the first place.
My answer is that ensuring etiquette never has been, nor ever will be the domain of automated surveillance, or platforms (online or off) that host literally billions of conversations. Not because of the technical challenges but because of the nature of etiquette itself. Etiquette is a social norm that is instilled through acculturation in your family, school, community and broader media diet. You do not arrive at good etiquette through policy nor do you effectively enforce etiquette through surveillance and punishment. Policy and punishment are guardrails but it is community norms that constrain bad behavior. Don’t take my word for it, let’s look to Confucius on this one: “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of the shame, and moreover will become good.”
Which brings me to my first point: While the whole story seems newsworthy I feel uncomfortable with the framing. essentially “Teen commits Suicide after Facebook Bullying”… how many suicides occur because of bullying each year? How many can we trace to social networks? Are social networks playing a unique and pivotal role in raising the level of suicides? Not of these questions are raised but the frame itself seems to condemn the new technology…
Bad behavior is bad behavior whether it is committed via email, telephone, in person or social network. Every time a new technology comes along we commit two cardinal sins:
We attribute new cause to old problems… case in point, bullying has always taken place – now that it is taking place on Facebook we seem to think Facebook has played some unique role. I disagree with this but I am totally open to being swayed by data.
We expect some parental figure to govern behavior through surveillance or punishment. Case in point – let’s charge Facebook with ensuring that no one bullies on their platform. To do this let’s monitor every conversation for possible bullying, inspect every escalated issue and then get in touch with the offenders and make them stop. That is a lost cause and it put the burden on the wrong party.
Bad behavior is bad behavior whether it is committed via email, telephone, in person or social network. Etiquette is a critical skill in the age of social networks but education and enforcement of such skills must be equally distributed among us all.
Reading the Fast Company article on how Twitter is being used now as an accurate means of predicting sales or behavior. In this case movies. While the application of Twitter as an effective prediction engine is limited at this point – it yet again points to a positive reading of the “law of unintended consquences.” Twitter has proved itself useful in functions that its creators could not have imagined. From the article:
We’ve all got the vague intuition that Twitter allows you track, in real-time, what people are concerned about or obsessed with. But this is a little freaky: Two researchers at HP Labs, Sitaram Asur and Bernardo Huberman, have discovered that you can actually use Twitter mentions to predict how well a movie will do in it’s first couple weekends of release. What’s more, the method works even better than the most accurate method currently in use, the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX)….
Twitter might be more than just a mirror of mass sentiment–the service might also influence it. In other words, could you actually make a product launch far more successful with a really smart Twitter strategy?
John Battelle cited a post of mine today in his great FM Signal blog. At issue were my thoughts on the Nestle Facebook fracas. John makes a great point and his post helped me get clear on what I increasingly see as a divide within social media between theory and practice. That is to say, there are a standard set of answers that garner complete agreement in theory but may not hold up so well in practice. John writes:
I think I’ll open Signal with a response to this post: Why Social Media May Not Be for You… (Yet), from Joshua-Michéle Ross of Opposable Planets. I like the thinking in this post, but disagree with the final thought. Musing on the recent Nestle Facebook “debacle” (which I do not believe is, or needs to be proclaimed a debacle), Joshua-Michéle concludes: If Nestle neither wishes to change or defend itself on the merits – then they shouldn’t be operating in social media.
Well, yes and no. Yes, in that the sheer beauty of social media is that it forces questions to the fore, and thus forces companies to respond to those questions. But no, it’s not OK, as a strategy, to “not be operating in social media.” I sense, perhaps, that Joshua-Michéle was making the same point in a roundabout way.
My reasoning? Because all of our customers are already operating in social media. You can’t pretend otherwise. And it’s better to engage, make mistakes, admit those mistakes, and move on, than to not engage at all. I call this “conversational judo,” and suggest we all practice it, daily. Twice on Sunday, perhaps.
Here is the comment (with very slight clean up after further reflection) that I left on the Signal blog:
Thanks for citing my post. We are essentially in agreement but I think we are lobbying from a fundamentally different perspective. In my opinion the difference lies between theory and practice. In theory every company SHOULD get engaged for the reasons you state above. In practice many organizations aren’t yet prepared (culturally and structurally) for what is involved. If you are counseling a company that will get criticism but has no internal mechanism to either respond or change – then as their counselor should you really be advising they take the dive? The result in many organizations will be personally harmful to those who you are advising (most company punish “mistakes”).
Case in point: I recently counseled a client similar in size and controversial status over their FB presence. They also had very debatable policies (on social rather than environmental merits as was the case with Nestle). I advised them to develop a risk mitigation plan – essentially that that they needed to be prepared ahead of time to either defend, ignore or change in response to the potential criticism. They decided that (1) they had no influence over corporate policy (2) the policy was hard to debate on the merits, and (3) that their remit was still quite traditional marketing (brand awareness). Weighing these together they concluded that the risk outweighed the reward. I think they actually made the right decision given all the factors above.
Do I think that they should be more fully engaged? Yes. Do I think that they are ready? No. So while on a theoretical level I agree that all organizations SHOULD be engaged, they need to lay the groundwork first. I hope the distinction makes sense.
A few months ago I wrote a post for Mashable titled: Why Social Media Isn’t For Everyone. I wrote it out of direct experience counseling clients who were rightly concerned about the risks of exposing their brand to direct and visible customer feedback.
The main point of the article was this:
The recent posterchild for ” Social-Media-Gone-Wrong” is Nestle. I have been following the story at a distance and just read a post on the subject from BG Creative:
The short version of the Facebook disaster is this: Greenpeace is mad at Nestle over palm oil and a bunch of their members began taking to Facebook to express their outrage. They covered the Nestle Facebook Fan Page with wall posts and changed their profile pictures to altered versions of the Nestle logo to further make their point. The moderator of Nestles Facebook page became flustered by the outpouring of hatred, and responded in a manner that was just a little too human. Comments such as: “Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it’s our page, we set the rules” certainly didn’t win him/her any fans.
The article goes on to suggest some ways Nestle could have dealt with the “crisis.” In essence, “ignore it” “thank them and move on” or “respond with humor” –This is solid enough counsel now that the cat is out of the bag but to me there is a much bigger point to be made: Nestle should have seen this coming a mile away. Did they not know that they engage in practices that have given rise to activist communities? Did they not know that these activist groups are also very active on social media?
Deciding to get into Social Media should be directly related to a company’s willingness to either (1) defend a controversial position by having a direct and open conversation about it or (2) change policies to align with customer expectations. If the company is unwilling to go with either of those options – then perhaps Social Media isn’t the right choice. Specific to Nestle: If they believe that Palm Oil is the best choice of ingredient and can defend it (economics, politics, environment etc.) then they should do so openly. If they feel it is a policy that, when fully measured, does have serious negatives, then perhaps they should consider a shift in policy. If Nestle neither wishes to change or defend itself on the merits – then they shouldn’t be operating in social media.
A Tale of Two Cities and Lessons for the Social Business.
About three years ago my wife and I made the rash (and wise) decision to buy a 17th century home in Southwestern France . Puy L’Eveque is a 13th century medieval town situated on a hill overlooking the Lot River. Its narrow streets all lead upward to the summit – where the Mairie (the mayor’s office) and the church occupy the high ground (Puy L’Eveque translates as “Bishops Hill”). It is beautiful in the way of most towns built to withstand the long-passed threat of siege. But Puy L’Eveque is unmistakably struggling. Its shops are anemic and situated between empty storefronts. Its farmer’s markets and vidi greniers are lean affairs and it recently canceled its yearly medieval festival. It’s population still remains below pre-World War One levels. From the tourist office brochure:
“In 1880 the community consisted of 2950 inhabitants, boasted 4 hotels, 6 bars, 9 café’s, a mounted brigade of gendarmes, a charity office, a city toll booth, a ferry-boat at Escafignoux, a flour mill and a suspension bridge! The 1999 census registered 2159 inhabitants.”
Three kilometers away lies the rather bland town of Prayssac; with ancient roots but clearly developed in the 19th century. Lying on the flat plain of the Lot valley, its nothing special to behold but its cafes, markets and festivals are bustling. It was something of a mystery to us when we moved here.
Why is picturesque Puy L’Eveque struggling while Prayssac thrives?
This is the topic of many dinner discussions among the expatriates here. Usually the blame is laid at the hands of incapable administrators. I believe the problem goes deeper. It is a question of architecture and urban planning. Puy L’Eveque’s siege architecture just isn’t built for the modern age. It’s positioning on a hillside was chosen for its unassailability. The medieval town privileges control of all traffic (human and material) with choke points at top and bottom. Until very recently there was a single, one-way street leading up to the summit; a stoplight at top and bottom alternated the flow of traffic – for five minutes traffic led upward – the next five minutes, down. The prime vantage points are held by church and state. Puy L’Eveque is lovely but it is relic of the past: privilege of place, control from the top, constricted material flows, and strict regulation of its borders.
Prayssac makes no such assumptions or attempt to control – people and goods move freely in and out of its borders. Prayssac is a social town – it welcomes outsiders. Its hierarchies form naturally through assembly at any of a number of town squares and the town dissolves naturally into the surrounding countryside. There are no fortress walls. The Mairie and Church are discreetly nestled amidst the other edifices.
In short, Puy L’Eveque was not architected for the modern world where goods and people follow an accelerated flow… where commerce privileges open exchange and more porous, natural borders between town and countryside. The very thing that made Puy L’Eveque thrive in the 14th century makes it hard to survive in the 21st; its architecture.
Many of our 20th century behemoths resemble Puy L’Eveque . They are closed fortresses with strict, forbidding hierarchies. While information flow outside has radically accelerated (everyone has a real-time broadcast tower) the modern organization is marked by glacial response times and chokeholds on who is an “authorized” spokesperson. The world is divided between those inside (employees) with very fixed roles and responsibilities and those “outside” (everyone else) who can’t be trusted.
Hendrik Hertzberg’s insightful comment on healthcare as a by-product of the system of legislation rather than Obama, Nancy Pelosi or even (or especially) Joe Lieberman, provides a lesson not just for government but for business on how architecture is destiny:
The American government has its human aspects—it is staffed by human beings, mostly—but its atomized, at-odds-with-itself legislative structure (House and Senate, each with its arcane rules, its semi-feudal committee chairs, and its independently elected members, none of whom are accountable or fully responsible for outcomes) makes it more like an inanimate object.
We tend to blame people and let architecture off the hook. But the structures we live within shape our behavior and govern what is possible just as the physical architecture of our towns both emerge from and reinforce the way we see world.
As the social norms set by the Social Web – openness, sharing, participation, become the norms of business (this to me is the key insight behind the new term “social business”) and as the information flow outside accelerates, organizations will need rethink their structures. They will need to think about whether or not they are designed like Puy L’Eveque or Prayssac.
I am coming to believe that the most successful posture in business is best described as “Confident Vulnerability.” In most organizations we are terrified of saying something stupid, something that doesn’t make sense or of looking like we don’t know where we are headed with an idea. But in order to get anywhere new you need to accept getting lost sometimes – you need to risk the stupid comment. How do you manage the tension? Screw the former and embrace the latter.
Perhaps the only substantive difference between a strategist and anyone else in the room is that we open our mouths first. The more experience and modest success I have in business the more that experience reinforces this singular lesson. Be confident. Make yourself vulnerable. You will be well rewarded by doing so.
I am a digital strategist focused on how technology opens new possibilities for social transformation and innovation within business. I am a Partner and Director of Digital, EMEA for Fleishman Hillard. I blog here, on O’Reilly Radar, and am a contributor for Forbes.com.