How well we are handling the impact of social media? It’s a point that Mervyn Dinnen touches on in a blog post, Social Media, Judging Others and The 5 Year Rule. Social media, as people have pointed out, redraw the line between public and private. Not all of the impacts of this are instant headlines grabbers. In one way, this social change is forcing us to abandon a pretence or two: online, we can see all too clearly that accountants have social lives, mathematicians occasionally dance on tables, that a large number of people – many of them with names or even faces – really do fancy George Clooney. In short, while we await the maturing of Digital HR, the people around us – in offices, on commuter trains, buttoned into their office-wear in the neighbouring car in the stationary traffic cue – are adults, just like we are, and that they are complex and fallible and messy just like we know that we are (but try to not show too much in our own Facebook timelines).
But will the types of netiquette faux pas that Mervyn writes about cease to be a talking point in five years time because it’s just not ‘news’ any more, or because those kind of stories have stopped happening? Will we adjust to our lives being potentially open to far more people than has previously been the norm, and if so by behaving ‘better’ or by averting our eyes to different things? Will aspects of human behaviour we’ve tended to indulge in but keep quiet stop carrying their current social taboos? Or will we negotiate some medium path, where we arrive at new norms: some behaviours become public, some become almost more private than before. (Pause for thought: watching, monitoring and judging the escapades of others are also human behaviours. And often as habitual as the behaviours they are observing.)
We can’t tell how all this will play out, of course, as we are living at the beginning of this particular social experiment. But we can tell that things are changing. It is not just our individual lives that are taking on new shapes across this shifting private/public divide: our relationships and interactions are increasingly public too. What does it say about us as a species that this new found ability to track and remotely outline the shapes of lives is a daydream come true for occupations as seemingly disparate as advertising and covert surveillance that now seem somewhat closer in spirit? In space no-one can sell you ice-cream; in cyberspace, the advert for your favourite flavour, with a special deal on delivery, can appear automatically as you browse for CDs or a new step-ladder. It’s ok not to feel paranoid, but please accept that in some very real sense you are being followed and monitored. Wriggle out of being monitored too rigorously, and you may even arouse a different suspicion:
There is another angle on social media that deserves flagging: its increasing ubiquity creates a different type of new ‘norm’. Not being on Facebook, for example, will increasingly say something about you that it did not a few years ago. Like not having a television, not participating will become a statement rather than a simple choice. Your lack of public profile, no matter how squeaky clean, will say something about you. While it might simply say that you are either rather dull or particularly private, human nature is more likely to interpret it as ‘they have something to hide’. Stay firmly offline and you may well be assumed to be trying to remain under the radar for some reason: the assumption may well be that the reason is a dark one.
The Daily Mail – which some social media users have been forward enough to suggest is a veritable font of modern paranoias – published an article last year with the telling title: Is not joining Facebook a sign you’re a psychopath? Some employers and psychologists say staying away from social media is ‘suspicious’. To make sure the point wasn’t missed, they illustrated their argument with references to high-profile mass killers:
Psychologist Christopher Moeller told the magazine that using Facebook has become a sign of having a healthy social network.
Psychologists have noted that Holmes, along with several noted mass murderers, have lacked any real friends.
And this is what the argument boils down to: It’s the suspicion that not being on Facebook, which has become so normal among young adults, is a sign that you’re abnormal and dysfunctional, or even dangerous, ways.”
(Anyone now firmly believing that I have parted company with the plot should note that Forbes.com published similar remarks.)
Our lives are also increasingly not only leaking into the online world, but staying there as a matter of record. A verbal aside that, in context, was perhaps amusing but undeniably going a little too far will in most cases be forgotten within weeks, let alone years. (Few of us are really witty enough to be recounted by others verbatim months after the utterance left our lips.) But online is different: those 140 characters are out there, and out there they are likely to stay. (Am I the only one who has noticed a recent flurry of articles and services aimed at helping us purge our online personas?) Not only are we no longer truly private at least some of the time, but we are increasingly ‘for the record’ rather than ephemeral. As Mervyn points out:
Right now the next generation of public servants, low skilled service workers, MPs, doctors, journalists and bankers are saying what they damn well like on social media platforms. They’re dating on them, partying and sexting on them, and making people laugh on them.”
How we respond over time to this new scenario will be fascinating to watch, but I think we do need to accept that no amount of controls, filters, monitoring or the like are likely to turn back the tide. We can’t unrub the lamp and get the genie back in the bottle.
On one hand, we have the swivel-chair revolutionaries, urging us to man the digital barricades and overthrow the existing social order. Euan Semple’s recent email newsletter pointed me to Conversationblog, where Philippe Borremans was writing about those who are emotionally invested in tools that would ‘drastically impact traditional power structures in companies’. There are appeals to the anarchist spirit (use of bold from the original article):
That conviction was even strengthened at the time (we’re talking early 2003) because some people called me (and others like me) “Corporate Anarchists”. And I remember we took this as a compliment…
Immanuel Kant describes anarchy as “Law and Freedom without Force” – this idea combined with one school of thought of anarchism – where the focus is on non-hierarchical organizations – was to me a kind of ultimate long term result.
But today I see more and more “social business” projects that tend to have “better control” as an objective. Some of these project are just about adding a social layer to already flawed business processes and models.”
I was left remembering three quotes – all, of course, available via the Internet (even the thoughts of the dead now live on around us). Consider, for example, Ammon Hennacy’s definition:
An anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave.”
A neat phrase, although it leaves what constitutes ‘behaving’ and who judges it as unresolved questions. By that definition, my father was also an anarchist: I’m glad he’s not here to break the news too – the shock might kill him afresh. A second quote, more applicable to Borremans’ argument, comes from American environmentalist Edward Abbey:
Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.
Which still leaves the matter of who the few are, and whether wisdom will henceforth be seen as qualification or disqualification (Borremans argues the latter, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge that replacing one judgemental group with another is a coup d’etat rather than anarchism.)
Perhaps more appropriate is a Time Out review of a current Paris exhition about Guy Debord, one of the central figures of the ‘events’ of May 1968 in Paris. In the interim, Debord has shuffled off: society, meanwhile, has simply moved on. As the reviewer comments:
“[…] the whole evokes our contemporary anti-publicity graffiti in the corridors of the Métro, alternative flyers, parodic blogs and savage Twitter campaigns. This is where Debord appears to us now: in that which defines the anarchic creativity our own era, where fine art has disappeared but everyone is free to invest in the ruins.”
Borremans’ point that some companies particular embracings of social media are effectively a case of sticking a social media wrapper around old practices (rather than opening up the organisation) is undeniably true, but I suspect that time rather than surgery will be the healer of what he sees as some kind of disease or cancer.
Sharlyn Lauby (@HRBartender) has commented about HR’s desire to join the top table – ie that the chair and the table will have ‘moved on by the time’ they get there, and they need to remember that – so we might perhaps think of companies (and particularly their HR departments) and social media in a similar way. In 10 years time, the people in HR who formulate practice on policy, on monitoring of applicants and so on will be the people who are currently at University, posting society-inappropriate but age-understandable Instagram pictures of themselves with a number of close friends, a crate of alcohol and a fluffy toy.
Social media have already started to change our use of language and our social behaviour; unless businesses divorce themselves entirely from the rest of human society, they will be changed and influenced by these developments – as will the people that compromise them. They will probably have learned either from example or experience that the freedom to blog, tweet, post statuses and tag things merrily comes with the same baggage as any other freedom – responsibilities – but they may also have taken an adult, mature moment to reflect on the sentiments of an old Cole Porter lyric.
Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
Any shock they should try to stem
‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.”