The social networking revolution will go only as far as the people

The social networking revolution is upon us, but will it change business for the better? It will go only as far as the people participating in it.

For every person who has jumped on a bandwagon -- or on a meme, in today's language -- there's one or two people asking to get off the "social networking revolution," or preferring to not get on at all.

Scot PetersenScot Petersen,
editorial director,
SearchCIO.com

Think Seinfeld's Kramer with the AIDS ribbon, or Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street. Today we have Andrew Keen (aka @ajkeen, the self-described “antichrist of Silicon Valley”) with his new book, Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us.

I've been reading the book, and I should say right at the top that anyone interested in social media, for or against, should read this book (I have the iPad Kindle app version). It's a fascinating, complicated and controversial treatise on social networks, the right to privacy, and what it all says about how we perceive ourselves as human beings.

Here's a sample:

"Today's social media is actually splintering our identities so that we always exist outside ourselves, unable to concentrate on the here-and-now, too wedded to our own image, perpetually revealing our current location, our privacy sacrificed to the utilitarian tyranny of a collective network."

This is strong stuff, conjuring concepts of the tyranny of the majority that democratic systems of government try to control, for instance, through the balance of power. In the Twitterverse, there is no balance of power, only how many followers I have and how cool my hashtags are. But Keen's not writing as a Luddite: He's a technology entrepreneur, author and above all, a social media user.

Wanted: A social CIO

Why should this kind of heresy be interesting to CIOs and other senior IT leaders? Because now you are being told you must get on the bandwagon, and there's little you can do about it. You've been reading about social business strategy and bring-your-own-device, or BYOD policies in the pages of SearchCIO.com. Forrester Research recently came out with a report titled The Social CIO. Even President Obama has taken to social media in order to get closer to the people.

In the Twitterverse, there is no balance of power, only how many followers I have and how cool my hashtags are.

Scot Petersen,
editorial director, SearchCIO.com

There's a method to this madness, of course. Social networks enable businesses to be closer to their people -- the customers -- in ways they've never had before, "to help their business design and build end-to-end experiences for customers … and to better understand how to influence customers, build better products and improve operations," writes Forrester senior analyst TJ Keitt, author of The Social CIO report.

I agree with all of that, and even have made similar recommendations myself, especially concerning the use social media tools for collaboration in the enterprise. But you have to admit that there's an insidious nature to the "collective network," as Keen calls it. If you aren't part of it, you're out of the loop, and so the pressure is on to be "on" all the time. Even if you do participate, your chances of becoming an alpha male in the virtual world are about as good as becoming one in the real world. Talent will win out, whatever the medium of choice.

Social revolutionaries

So, where can we go with this new insight on the social networking revolution? Recognize that it is a revolution, for one. In the case of empowering the customer and the knowledge worker, it's a revolution that is probably long overdue. But to what end is it a revolution?

Should businesses start crowdsourcing out all market research and product development? Maybe, but what would that say about a company's own agenda, ethics and capacity for innovation? Where would we strike the balance? Should enterprise IT staffs force their own social technology on their users or should employees take to communicating only through (socially) approved channels rather than those supplied by enterprise IT?

These are tough calls, and are not going to be solved here and now. But the success or failure of transforming business around social models will rest on them. And the decisions are going to need to be made soon.

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