No Ghost in the Machine: The Case for a Social Renaissance, Part 1

There's lots of conversation about social media these days, and it plays like a broken record: an individual here or there registers skepticsm about social as a marketing tool (as many senior marketers do), and a vocal, impassioned lobby of evangelsts rises to its defense.

2011 has started off with what has become an annual ritual of forecasts of new technologies and new behaviors, as if the next twelve months will be unlike any year that has come before. Whether in business, politics, or the arts, it's accepted wisdom that the future requires us to throw out even our most precious understanding and beliefs of the past, and instead think and act in new ways.

What an old idea.

People have been living on the cusp of the future for all of history; it's no great exercise of insight or will to assume that any experience that is new is also new to the entire world. Every generation believes it has discovered an Undiscovered Country and usually comes up with its own explanations and theories in lieu of whatever's handed to them, however accurate or useful the latter might be. What this means is that most generations spend an inordinate amount of time and effort reliving most of the mistakes, reinventing some of the accomplishments, and occasionally chancing upon improvements of past generations. Philosopher George Santayana once wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," and that thought also applies to the willful rejection or misinterpretation of history.

Video Didn't Kill The Radio Star

This condition is often evident in our attitudes toward technology (technical devices and, more broadly, any artifacts that mankind can build). Technology innovation regularly creates new worlds that look, act, and get run like old ones, just as it prompts the theories and opinions to claim otherwise. Is Facebook so novel that it's really worth a gazillion dollars? We said the same things about AOL a decade ago. Mobile is the killer app for marketing? It used to be radio. Once upon a time the telegraph would usher in an era of world peace, television would blow up our experience of community, and video would kill the radio star.

Not so much, all things considered. Many really smart people over the years have wasted an inordinate amount of time trying to make such predictions true, but no force of argument can change the facts. We tend to repeat the past, especially when we consciously reject it. The examples in politics (like utopian ideals) and business (survival of the fittest doesn't equate with moral or social good) are just as vivid. Just check out some historic visions of the future—such as those of 1950's America, or the 19th century Victorians—and what you see are actually their presents, only recast with a dash of imaginative fiction.

It's as if we have an inherent willingness to believe that advances of our artifice trump any genetic predispositions or traditions of culture...yet we never change things as much as we expect, and certainly not in the exact manners we forecast. I think this is particularly relevant to our understanding and expectations of social technology (and the experiences it enables).

If you believe the Conventional Wisdom when it comes to social media, 2011 will be another year in which we invent entirely new definitions for things like "community" and "collaboration," which will require new measures for "value," new appreciation for "transparency" and "curation," and new models for what constitutes "financial solvency." The very use of social networks represents a New Era of communications experience that obviates uses of older things, from paper-based media to paragraph-long conversations, and replaces them with different, heretofore unknown rules and habits. Not buying this pitch isn't just wrong, but worse: it's old fashioned and outdated, which seems like the most awful insult these days.

Yet all the while marketers and propagandists are using social media to accomplish really old things like sell stuff that consumers may or may not need, and otherwise exploiting the weak-minded for the same purposes that have driven their efforts since before Ben Franklin discovered electricity.

I think we need something new. We need a true Social Renaissance.

To Be Born Again

The European Renaissance that took place between the 14th and 17th centuries (roughly) was a multidiscipline embrace of the classical learning that had been abandoned to give the world the Dark Ages. Scholars rediscovered Greek plays and Latin political oratory; scientists (like Da Vinci) were empowered to study Nature with an emergent experimental method; theologians embraced the humanism of the ancients that led them to the Protestant Reformation. The pace of change that we know today, in any and every aspect of our lives, began to pick up in the Renaissance, as those souls living in the late 16th century inhabited a planet that was truly different from that into which their great-grandparents had been born.

This era wasn't simply a continuation of the past but a break with it...at least with the immediate past. Because the word "renaissance" means "to be born again," so the driving ideology wasn't a rejection of the past, per se, but a greater effort to understand and apply it. It was a return to the oldest classical ideals—the truths of all pasts—and to a worldview before it was polluted by subsequent generations of "improvement," and characterized by:

  • An embrace of objective truth and a material reality
  • An understanding of causality and consistency
  • Common processes and definitions that applied equally in multiple circumstances
  • Acknowledgement of observational fact as the starting point, and litmus test, of every theory

Armed with these historical standards, Renaissance thinkers and doers invented things that had not been conceived by the classical world and were truly new: in art, true perspective; in politics, an extension of the voting franchise; in business, expanded risk markets that enriched many; and in culture and religion, a real respect for the authority and autonomy of the individual. One could argue that the era could not have forged ahead in this way had it been busy rediscovering and practicing the experiences of immediately prior history. It is commonly believed that the Renaissance created the bridge between the medieval and modern worlds.

There have been other renaissances throughout history, or periods when one epoch really morphed into the next. Various enlightenments around the world have qualified, though "revolutions" have been much more common; not surprisingly, we aren't the first to use the word to describe what's going on because we think it means "radical change." It doesn't. "Revolution" is a scientific term for "to turn around," and it was first used in a sociopolitical context to describe Britain's William III's return of Protestantism to the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He returned things to the way they had been. Change that just, well, changes stuff for the sake of making it appear new usually ends up instituting more of the same stuff. Bolsheviks replace Tsars...that sort of thing.

Renaissance and revolution; rebirth and return. What matters about the mechanisms for true change has little to do with making up new things. They must first (and foremost) reaffirm the old things that matter.

No Ghost in the Machine

Sure, it says "2011" on the calendar, but it's still about 1950 when it comes to most brand and marketing thinking. Strip out every reference to digital tools, new consumers, or any of the popular buzzwords that fill most blogs, and the why of what we do has remained all but unchanged, not just since last year but for over Half a century:

  • Brands are defined as mental states
  • They're created via communications tools
  • Brands achieve independent existence

What has changed for us is the how we accomplish the things we've always wanted to do (which is to tell people about our stuff and get them to buy into it so they'll, hopefully, buy it for real sometime down the line). From this perspective, even our newest sounding social definitions and strategies can be seen as restatements of what we traditionally do:

  • Our social metrics (buzz, followers) are measures of mental states
  • Our campaigns are driven by creative and other qualities of specific media
  • Our intention is to get people to interact or engage with brands

We're haunted by brands, and so is our use of social technology tools, as if there's a ghost that we are committed to creating and then repeatedly hunting. Our machines are but ways to experience this mental, ethereal entity of our invention and, even if we can sometimes legitimately claim that brands are co-created with our consumers, they're still not much different than those that marketers created via older media...we just can do a better job of sensing and tracking them. Brands are a distinctly analog idea that has survived all but unchanged in the digital era.

This is stasis, not evolution, and certainly not revolution. The same thinking drove newspaper ads in the 1920s, radio in the 1940s, and television in the 1960s. Yet, convinced of our own uniqueness, we choose to call it something new and different, and turn the purposes of social media in the 2010s to its service. It's what we do as marketers. We then use the selfsame social tools to tell one another how good we are at doing it, and berate our clients and employers when they don't get its utility. They are laggards. Behind the times. Old.

No they're not. We are. Maybe there's no ghost in the machine after all.

(Part 2 of this essay will detail what a real social media revolution would look like)

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