The myth of the social media mob

Rather than associating social media technology with social unrest, executives should consider the power and potential inherent in capturing the attention and coordinating the activities of thousands.

Business Week, Wired and the Economist published articles in December about social media and its role in social unrest.  The articles described how social media has enabled everything from peaceful protests to looting via ‘flash robs’ that actively monitor and coordinate their actions around police movements.

Executives reading these articles could understandably equate social media with unrest, a lack of control, instability and mob rule.  Is that a wrong way to look at what has happened in 2011?

Yes, the legitimacy of a technology cannot be determined only by its applications or the behavior of users is wrong.  Social media may have lowered the barriers to organising legitimate demonstrations or illegal activity, but social media is not the source of either.

People have always and will always find ways to use technology to meet their needs, whatever those needs happen to be.  The printing press, radio, the telephone, cassette tape recorder, and fax machine have each been applied to challenge authority and create revolution in the past.

Rather than associating social media technology with social unrest, executives should consider the power and potential inherent in capturing the attention of thousands, engaging their interest, coordinating their activities and creating a collaborative experience based on their interests and passions.   What could your organisation accomplish if people did more than just come to work, turn in their eight hours and then go home?

Mass collaboration is the term we use to describe what happens when large groups of people come together to accomplish a mutual purpose that creates value.  Social media provides the technical means for mass collaboration and in the case of protest movements in 2011 the ability of thousands to communicate, share, build upon each other’s ideas and take coordinated action.

It takes more than technology to create a mass movement or mass collaboration.  In our study of more than 400 applications of social media for the book The Social Organization, we found that successful firms applying mass collaboration leverage collaborative communities, purpose, technology and new styles of management to tap into the energy and experience of their people.   They need all of this to create meaningful business results including:

  • Engaging customers, prospects and associates to learn more about their needs, desires, interests in order and build a shared context for new products, services, processes and offerings
  • Connecting consumers from shelf to seed with farmers to dialogue on food and food safety issues
  • Facilitating customers helping each other to get more value from your products and services
  • Coordinating and sharing advice about critical decisions within your organisation, increasing your ability to act based on facts and actively enlist people in change processes
  • Improving the adoption of health and safety practices to reduce the potential for injury in the workplace.

It is convenient to equate the value and legitimacy of technology on its application.  Based on social media’s recent press coverage, it would seem that no executive in their right mind would welcome much less sponsor these technologies in their company.

Step back and think about what the technology enables in order to understand the potential of social media based mass collaboration.  Mass collaboration, via social media is a technology that creates and sustains meaningful results in your organisation where the only unrest is that of your competitors.

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs.