Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Social Networking, or Social Fragmenting?

Rebecca Thorman's blog post about how social media doesn't create a new generation of leaders remains embedded in my mind as prophetic beacon of how all of this online networking may not be getting us as far along as we'd like. Two magazines I've recently read prove she's right.

In last month's Wired Magazine, Tim Harford explains why new technological tools, which intend to eliminate the importance of geography when it comes to collaboration, actually do just the opposite. As wonderful as email and wall posting are, it doesn't decrease our need for human interaction. Harford writes:
Business is more innovative, and its processes more complex. That demands tacit knowledge, collaboration, and trust – all things that seem to follow best from person-to-person meetings.
In other words, if you're going to do work, you may need to meet people in person. As Harford correctly points out, business travel isn't dying out, and air travel is at record highs.

Likewise, two items of note jump out in this month's Fast Company (which is the best magazine you could be reading if you want to know anything about anything). We'll start at the end.

Rob Walker's back page column points out how online marketing may not live up to the hype. Even with Facebook's Beacon advertising and marketing program, a targeted market may be elusive. Sure, lots of folks are sharing information on their profile, but perhaps they're omitting what it is they really need, thus leaving advertisers in the lurch. And that's if you’re lucky; some folks might lie on their profile outright.

Secondly, an excerpt from Richard Florida's new book is a perfect compliment to Harford's article, in that he also highlights the importance of geography in today's global economy. He departs from Thomas Friedman's groundbreaking theory that the world is flat and instead suggests a spiky world, where peaks of innovation are cropping up in selected areas. Even if similar types of folks link themselves digitally by being 'friends,' Florida points out the importance of linking via geographical proximity:
Geographic concentration encourages innovation because ideas flow more freely, are honed more sharply, and can be put into practice more quickly when innovators, implementers and financial backers are in constant contact. Creative people cluster not simply because they like to be around one another or prefer cosmopolitan centers with lots of amenities (though both things tend to be true). They cluster because density brings such powerful productivity advantages, economies of scale, and knowledge spillovers.
So perhaps all of this technological innovation isn't taking us as far as we think it is. Maybe it's just a better way to play Scrabble.

As someone who runs a digital property, I'm constantly looking for what all this means for CoolPeopleCare and our mission to enable people to change the world. Yeah – we've got the Facebook fan page, we've got the MySpace profile, we Twitter and we blog. But why do we do all this, especially when we believe in the power of the offline community so much and that change happens best face to face?

Because we have to be where people are. And people now gather online. Even if the ultimate action we're soliciting is one of offline, real world, or analog behavior, the doorway into people's minds is a digital one.

So by all means use social media and use it well – but don't expect it to save the world in an instant. Countless individuals are finding that social networks could lead to social fragmenting. Rebecca's found that social networks don't create new leaders. Even if there is a digital doorway, the pathway to change has to still be traversed with two very real feet.

Comments (2)

I would say that we do it because we know that all of this media is still a tool, much the same way it has always been, to get the message out there.

The importance of websites, blogs and social media now is their ability to be used to mobilize visitors to influence change. They open our eyes to ways that things are done in other communities and exist to help us figure out just how that information can be digested and used in different situations. I think that CoolPeople Care has been able to achieve that goal very well, even if it was not necessarily intentional.

It can strengthen those bonds that are necessary to move a community forward. In that sense it is a great way to save the world, just at the pace of a New York minute - and it's safe to say (especially as a native New Yorker) that those minutes can last much longer than you think, but can produce some beautiful things in the long term.

We're getting ready to announce a new initiative on The Terminal that will no doubt be seen as not helping solve the problem, but when it is rolled out next week, we hope that it will take advantage of our specific geographic focus (Birmingham, AL) and drive folks to figure out just what change is and how simple it can be carried out in our community and eventually everywhere else.

It's an experiment just like everything else still is here online. But it's going to be fun to see if it can truly work.

Those are some great thoughts, Dre. I agree that this digital toolbox can be a great asset to any organization, so as long as its not seen as a simple panacea to solve everyone's problems.

I think The Terminal is a perfect example of technology being used well to effect offline behavior. Nice work!