Saturday, 25 October 2008

Social Media part 5

So far I've described some of the ways in which Social Media can and have been used to change the way in which people operate in relation to organisations, and how organisations themselves can embrace the possibilities.

But what happens when something becomes redundant as a result of change? Social Media, in itself, does not make change happen - it's the way in which the technology is used by people that creates the change. And when new technology emerges, and new uses are created, there can exist a period of change during which an old paradigm is no longer needed, but it's still physically present. What do you do during this overlap period? Eventually the old paradigm will disappear, but what happens in the meantime?
Confused? Here's an example from Clay Shirky's book (see Part 4).

In the early Middle Ages (up until the beginning of the 15th Century) the only way books could get recorded was by hand. So the profession of "scribe" had emerged and was incredibly important. As Shirky puts it, scribes "performed the essential service of refreshing cultural memory" (Here Comes Everybody, page 67). Then, in the early 1400s moveable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg - suddenly it was far cheaper, easier and quicker to reproduce written work. However scribes didn't suddenly cease to exist in 1400 - and in fact they persisted for about 100 years as a profession before eventually dying out. The scribe's skills had been replaced by a new technology which freed people from developing and relying on those skills. Needless to say the scribes didn't want this because their way of life was threatened, but it was a change that was good for society and it was unstoppable.

Social Media is a bit like moveable type. It's a technology that changes the way we communicate. Think about it: until recently broadcast media (TV and radio) were in the hands of a few professionals - we had no way of getting messages out to masses of people by any other means, so this professional group emerged. It's the same for journalism and photojournalism. Until recently this was controlled because the means of production (newspapers) were a constraint, and journalists were therefore few in number. Now, through Social Media sites like Flickr (for photos), blogs (for "journalism") and the whole Internet (for connecting people to people: broadcasting), these old ways of doing things are becoming redundant. We're still in the cross-over time, but eventually these professions will either evolve into something completely new, or die out.
So here's another huge opportunity - organisations can embrace the change and evolve themselves in so doing (and new professions may emerge to replace redundant old ones); or resist and eventually die out.
What does this mean for a public sector organisation like a council? Well one of the things they currently "control" is communications - a bit like newspapers, radio & TV in this respect. Councils decide what they want to say, how to say and how to transmit it. But this is now an old paradigm - this is like being a scribe. Eventually the way we communicate will change completely, so we can either work with this and be part of the change or resist it / do nothing and eventually have the change imposed on us. This has an immediate impact on those areas that deal with communication professionally - communications and marketing is the obvious one, but also anyone involved with creating leaflets, information booklets, etc. is affected. Printed Council and Area Committee Newsletters' days are numbered (as media on their own) - do we just ignore this or start to plan now for what we can replace them with?

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