Social media – evolution or revolution (that thorny subject)

I spoke last week in Budapest at Kreative magazine’s Digital PR conference. It was interesting for a couple of reasons. First, to visit a country where everyone seems to think they are some years behind the US or UK in adopting social media. I actually think Hungarians are being a little hard on themselves here. Everyone was pretty familiar with all the tools and latest ‘bright shiny things’, there was simply a (small) lag in terms of understanding how to use them. I was also at pains to point out to everyone I talked to, that actually very few marketing / communications / PR people in the UK really understand social media – so there is not a huge mountain to climb.

The second reason it was interesting was because it surfaced the whole revolution versus evolution debate. I spent my allotted 20 minutes trying to persuade the audience that social media was a revolution. See presentation below.

The next speaker Jo Stapleton from Kinesis (whom I don’t think saw my presentation) took as his theme the fact that social media is a an evolution, not a revolution, and we are all already doing it, even if we don’t realise it.

So who is right?

Well Jo is right in that participating in social media is very easy (that’s its point) and doesn’t feel like a revolutionary step. It doesn’t require that you take a stand or make a commitment or challenge the established order. But, paradoxically, it is this very ease which is actually challenging the established order. And while individuals are not required to take a stand, collective participation is meaning that individuals collectively, are taking to the barricades even if they don’t realise it.

I can understand the advantage in promoting the evolutionary approach – especially in order to engage organisations (rather than individuals) to embrace social media. I have certainly found the best, and sometimes only, way of getting organisations into this space is to encourage them to see social media as a journey of many simple and easy steps (a diet is the analogy I use – i.e. a vision of a destination that can’t be achieved overnight or through big interventions). Also – if you have a techy background, as Jo does, social media doesn’t feel like some big step-up. The technology isn’t really new or sexy and the only thing that has really changed is that non-geeks can now play the game – which for a geek can make things feel rather flat.

However, there comes a point where it becomes important to really delve into what is going on in social media and recognise that it is a once in 600 year shift that has the potential to change pretty much everything. And even if this is a step too far, it is crucial to realise that the social media space (or post-Gutenberg space as I prefer to call it) is very different. If you don’t understand these differences and still have your head in the old 1.0 digital world – you are likely to end up in trouble. Most of the mistakes that organisations have made in engaging with social media have come about not through loss of control (as the organisations fear or expect) but through inappropriate behaviour occasioned by the fact that the organisation concerned has not recognised that they have crossed into a new world.

Establishing this recognition is the biggest challenge that us self-professed social media consultants face, a subject which became the focus of lunchtime conversation between the visiting guest speakers (Andres Witterman and Ruud Bijl) – where we all swapped stories / vented our frustration at the difficulties of getting our respective clients to really ‘get it’ when it comes to social media.

Which is why I will persist in dragging everyone back to 1439 and the dawn of the Gutenberg era in every presentation I give! Getting people to recognise that the ability to separate information from its means of distribution is actually eroding one of the (largely invisible) pillars that have been holding society since the Renaissance is important. This is the elephant (or printing press) on the table.

Perhaps the final observation is that evolution and revolution are not competing concepts. As a general rule it is revolutionary changes that have been the principal engines of evolution.

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