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The Widow – Coming to terms with the Social Media Mystery House

Submitted by on October 8, 2011 – 1:35 am3 Comments

This post is part of an ongoing series taken from my eBook on Social Media Architecture; a Field Guide to Unifying your Social Media Presence.   You can download the entire book here.


Tucked in the heart of Silicon Valley, amidst the headquarters of Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter lies the Winchester Mystery House, a sprawling six- acre monument to it’s owner,  Sarah Winchester. As the heir to the Winchester Rifle company’s fortune, Sarah was one of the wealthiest people in 19th  century America, with a fortune totaling some 22 million dollars.

She was also haunted.

With the death of her daughter and subsequently, her young husband, William Wirt Winchester, Sarah came to believe that she was cursed by the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle, the “Gun that Won the West.”

After William’s death, Sarah moved out West to San Jose, then a sleepy valley full of plum and apricot orchards and, in an effort to elude the spirits of the dead, she began building the Winchester house in 1884. For the next thirty years, the remainder of her life, the mansion was continuously built and extended.  It is a sprawling mess. There are roughly 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms and two ballrooms. he house  has 47 fireplaces, 10,000 window panes, 17 chimneys, two basements and three elevators. It is rumored that she never spent more than a single, consecutive night in any bedroom, always in motion to avoid her ghosts.

Being built without any master plan, the house is a veritable maze; stairways  lead to dead ends, doors open into walls, skylights are placed into floors, a chimney ends inches below the ceiling and so on.  The tour covers a full 1.5 kilometers end to end and, as any visitor can tell you, you can’t go there without a guide. You get lost from the moment you enter.

Located at the center of Internet innovation (no irony intended), Sarah Winchester’s Mystery House is an ideal metaphor for corporate use of social technologies.  Organizations are frantically building without any master plan.  And the bigger the organization, the bigger the problem.   The result is a social media mystery house with campaigns leading nowhere, a maze of branded sites with no connection to one another, and abandoned “rooms” haunted by ghosts of customer’s past.

The social media mystery house is the result of two countervailing forces.  First, the business pressure to get in the game.  Every executive is being asked to define their social media strategy (or just “do something”) and the drumbeat is relentless.  Second, creating a social media presence and getting content online requires zero technical proficiency and has none of the gating factors (such as internal IT involvement) that traditionally accompanied marketing and communications efforts. Each product line gets a Facebook page.  Each marketing campaign deserves a Twitter account –  or a new YouTube channel.  Each local office establishes accounts and so on.  As a result, an organization’s social media presence  becomes a mirror into the structural divisions of the organization itself.

If, like Sarah Winchester, organizations are looking to elude and mystify their customers, they are doing a good job. However, as we move from social media as a novel new means of building relationships, to a mission critical part of the business infrastructure the terms of success will move from isolated pages and campaigns to connectedness and coordination .

If the metaphor for the problem comes from architecture – The Social Media Mystery House – then architecture can also provide a useful metaphor for the solution.     That will be the subject of the next post.

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