On April 21, 2008, ten years ago, Charlene Li and I celebrated the publication of our Harvard Business Press book Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. It was the first book for each of us. It made an impact, selling over 150,000 copies. Ten years later, I’d like to talk about how to deal with what social media has become.
In 2008, social media was just beginning to get interesting. As Forrester analysts, Charlene and I wanted people to understand the breadth and appeal of the phenomenon, and provide a roadmap for how people in companies and other organizations should act on it. Our timing was excellent — as social media awareness expanded among consumers and marketers, Groundswell’s popularity grew with it. Charlene leveraged that growth to build a successful business; I used it to launch a career as an author.
The main ideas in Groundswell were these:
- The groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things that they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.
- It includes not just traditional social networks like Facebook, but blogs, online communities, virtual worlds, wikis, podcasts, and online ratings and reviews — any online environment in which people can create, collaborate, react to, and share what they think.
- People participate in different ways. Some create content, some comment on content created by others, some just passively read content. For any given group, the profile of how they use social technologies is different.
- Companies and marketers can plan their participation in four steps that you can remember with the acronym POST: People (analyze your customers’ social profile), Objectives (figure out what you want to accomplish), Strategy (build a plan to accomplish it), Technology (use the right tools to accomplish it). Technology comes last, not first.
- Possible social technology objectives include listening, talking, energizing, supporting, and embracing (what we’d now call crowdsourcing).
- You can also use these same methods within your company, to help employees connect with and work with each other.
Things have changed so much in ten years that it’s hard to remember what the world was like before online social technologies became ubiquitous. In 2008, the Web was mostly a one-way medium. Companies posted things, people reacted to them. Sure, there were spaces like GeoCities and MySpace and the occasional blog, but they had not yet become pervasive. The Web of 2008 was about organizations making information and services available to people.
Everything online now includes the richness of people. People comment on news articles and review products and places. Facebook and Twitter have become central to how we interact with the news, and with each other. Social and the other big trend of the last ten years — smartphones — have forever changed the online interaction. Everyone sees each other in everything we do; our own connection is now part of the fundamental structure of online experience. Just as we had predicted, people use social technologies to get the things that they need from each other.
That was the big thing, but we were right about other things, too. We opened people’s eyes to how all the different technologies were part of one trend. We persuaded strategists to stop thinking first about technology. POST continues to be useful. The different objectives are a good way to think about what you’re doing. And online social interaction within companies has become standard, with tools like Slack and Chatter.
I think the thing we helped with most is the idea that social technologies are a serious business tool.
We were wrong (or at least not as insightful as we might have been) about some things, too. The discussion in Groundswell about Myspace seems laughably out-of-date now. I don’t think we realized how dominant Facebook would become. We didn’t talk about mobile, which is now a major element of how social technologies spread; we certainly didn’t foresee the rise of apps. I think we underestimated the way that memes and fake news stories would spread, how social would suck up so much of people’s time, and how it would numb their brains.
Some reflections on what social has become
Social media is now part of the infrastructure of the world. I think of it as being like cars, or electricity, or the Internet.
You cannot imagine a world without cars, or electricity, or the Internet. Every serious person knows how to use them. They have reshaped the world in their image. There is no point in convincing people that cars, or electricity, or the Internet are worth using, because of course they are. They have good and bad aspects, but there is no going back. The question now is what are the appropriate ways to use them, and how to mitigate the problems they create.
In the same way, there is no need to convince anyone about social technologies, the question is the right way to use them.
If you think that social technologies are evil, I disagree. Social technologies have created an enormous, and mostly positive, change in the world. We all read ratings before we buy things. We keep in touch with old friends. We collaborate effectively within companies. We create movements like #MeToo. We entertain each other. And for individuals with opinions and knowledge, like me, social technologies enable us to communicate with our audiences on our platforms.
In any case, there is no going back. We won’t give up social media any more than we can give up cars, or electricity, or the Internet.
I am, of course, concerned about where the groundswell has ended up.
We have removed all friction from the groundswell. The combination of smartphones and Facebook has made everything interesting spread without impediment. This includes false news stories, ganging up on and bullying people, revenge porn, and dissent sowed by bad actors, foreign government, and presidents with bad judgment. While the groundswell enables the best of who we are to shine, it allows the worst of who we are to spread.
Our vision of the corporate uses of social media was too optimistic. On the plus side, the informality of corporate blogs has proven to be a great tool, and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are supercharging some forms of innovation. Internal channels like Slack are exciting and in some companies, they’ve transformed how people collaborate.
But for most corporations, social media is just a broadcast medium on Twitter and Facebook, a new customer support channel, a place to advertise, and a method for launching long-shot viral campaigns. Socially-driven content marketing is a positive development, but few have mastered it. Corporate social media innovation is lagging.
A path forward
How can we make the social world better?
While regulation can fix some of the worst parts of social media, I don’t think regulation is the answer. Facebook is popular because it enables things to spread easily. Some of those things are terrible. And some less regulated platforms, like Reddit, spread things that are even worse. Regulating the way these platforms use data use will certainly reduce some of the forms of abuse, but regulation cannot solve the problem of lies and bullying spreading rapidly. Rapid spread of content is a feature, not a bug.
Certainly, major platforms like Facebook and Twitter have a responsibility for what they have enabled. That responsibility rests in the algorithms that determine what we are most likely to see. Facebook could become much less corrosive if its creators tweaked it to expose us to a greater variety of viewpoints. If someone posts a falsehood, it will spread less rapidly if people from all sorts of backgrounds are more likely to see it, and challenge it. It’s time for Facebook to become less efficient at showing us exactly what we want to see. It’s not as if the company’s massive profits will evaporate if it becomes less of a machine intent on reinforcing 100% of our prejudices.
But the real solution to this problem lies within us, not within the technologies we are using.
It is time to bring a spirit of skepticism and engagement to all of our online interactions.
Let’s start with what we teach people in school. We already teach history, geography, writing, and civic engagement to our children. We must now teach an attitude about what they read in the online world. We must show them how to recognize the difference between responsible journalism and made-up crap. We must show them how to disagree based on principles and not personal attacks. Just as computers have become part of the curriculum, social technologies should be as well, starting with classroom social networks. The idea that a students will go out into the world without a skeptical attitude about what they read online should be just as unthinkable as the idea that drivers should hit the roads without driver training, or citizens hit the voting booth without an exposure to history and civics.
What about adults? When it comes to technology, the adoption patterns of children and young adults has always influenced how the rest of the grownups behave. I’d love to see an institute using viral and social methods to educate adults, not about specific issues, but about skepticism and discourse. The groundswell decade, starting in 2008, created this social phenomenon. Let’s turn the decade starting in 2018 toward the challenge of making it work better.
What about corporations and other institutions? As always, they will take their lead from the customers. If people adopt a skeptical attitude characterized by discourse, companies will adopt marketing that connects with that. Meme culture has created a meme-based attitude towards marketing. We can do better, but that will depend on a more enlightened attitude by consumers changing how marketers perceive their tactics. That will take a long time, but I am hopeful that it will happen.
And what about you, dear reader?
For you, the social media consumer, I have one simple caveat. Prioritize thinking over spreading. Before you share, consider what you have read. Think about it for a moment. Why does what you are reading or viewing exist? Who created it? What was their goal? Is it believable? Is it fair? Is it, perhaps, wrong? Evaluate, and then write. Comment, don’t just like. Retweet with a comment, don’t just retweet. Yes, that will slow you down a moment. But it will also add your intelligence to what you share.
Collectively, our intelligence might just make a difference. It might bend the groundswell back a bit more towards the ideals that made us write the book in the first place.