No Ghost in the Machine: The Case for a Social Renaissance, Part 2

(This essay is Part 2: here is Part 1, which appeared on Fast Company last week.)

Summary

We're haunted by our definition of brands, and so is our use of social technology tools...it's as if there's a ghost that we are committed to creating and then repeatedly hunting. Our machines are but shiny new ways to experience this mental, ethereal entity of our creation and, even if we can sometimes legitimately claim that brands are co-created with our consumers, they're still not much different than what marketers created with them via older media. We just 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.

What Would A Real Revolution Look Like?

Imagine a revolution in social theory and application driven not by the presumptions of the 20th century but by the time-tested truths of the last few centuries BCE? Greek philosophers writing the strategies and not digital media gurus...or at least the latter channeling the former. A rediscovery of the rational thoughts that guided classical civilization, and a repurposing of them to our Age of Conversation. Less mobile apps and more ionic architecture...

What would a real revolution look like? Here are three possibilities:

First, it wouldn't be run by marketers (or its experience described thereby), or not primarily as it is now. Marketing is a function that belongs to the 20th century; it emerged to address and manage the media that emerged during that era, and marketers functioned much as other intermediaries did (like stock brokers or travel agents). Social media, by definition, doesn't need their involvement with any greater time or influence than that of any other participants, The fact that marketing departments or their agents happen to host most social campaigns ("campaigns" being one of our old, 20th century terms) predisposes the function of those activities to our outdated purposes. Arguably, these uses don't invent new experiences whatsoever, but rather incrementally improve those we already knew (customer service, product education, etc.).

A true Social Renaissance would be driven by participation in non-branded communities, organically conceived or at least agnostically operated. Business or other institutional usage would be similarly distributed across the enterprise or organization; conversation wouldn't be with brands but rather about them.

Think classical truisms of individual existence, responsibility, self-knowledge, and self-reliance even within communities. A Social Renaissance based on those qualities versus the imagined magic of anonymous involvement and the [sic] wisdom of crowds could yield truly new outcomes, couldn't it? I guess marketing departments could conceive of POVs they wanted to share, but it wouldn't be that terribly authentic, as individual participants each bring with them their own unique credibility. It would be a renaissance not of Voice of Customer in business...but simply of voices in society, with which business (and the rest of us) could participate and perhaps benefit.

Second, it wouldn't be monetized. Conversation is as old as the first caveman recommending sabertooth tiger steak to his friend, and it has always belonged to the participants in it. The idea that any entity would own or profit from it worked only if such activities didn't intrude on the experience; better yet, it had to enhance it, as coffee houses did by selling caffeinated beverages and a warm fire, or the USPS does by delivering the mail. Expectations that Twitter, Facebook, or the next technology marvel will instead make money by influencing the conversations themselves, overtly or otherwise as a matter of execution, are expectations with no reasonable basis in history. Comparisons to the growth of broadcast TV are faulty, for instance, because commercial messages were a part of that programming (those conversations) from the get go; the process over time was to pull them apart and away from the content.

A true Social Renaissance would be driven by interactions that had implicit and obvious value to the participants (again, the idea that any social tool presently offered for free has hidden value just waiting to be exploited is a misread of social experience). Businesses or other institutional usage wouldn't be dependent on influencing conversation but rather creating the contexts in which it could thrive, unencumbered by the manipulations of marketers, and then joining in the dialogue.

The classical purposes of community were substantive (it yielded millennia of Roman republic and the political and artistic accomplishments of the Greek city-states), and they created endless value for the participants and, in doing so, for the institutions that supported them. So could a big oil brand host a community and make absolutely no claim to profit from it? Would it have benefits to the business? Or perhaps would third-parties discover other financial models (like subscriptions, for instance) to preserve the agnosticism of the conversation, and its safety from being commercialized?

Third, it wouldn't be driven by creative content. The fact that so much social experience these days is either focused on, or relating to, marketing creative is a symptom of its inadequacy. The Conventional Wisdom that drives this approach is to generate enough stuff to populate social sites and thus use creative invention to drive social campaigns (entire books and ongoing services exist to sell to your business the content you need to feed this Beast). Some of the most noted brand marketing uses are social campaigns about...brand marketing, such as contests to design ad creative or shoot homemade commercials, almost as if the social experience allows every consumer to become a marketer. That's like handing out buggy whips to people in line to buy a car, isn't it?

A true Social Renaissance would base conversation on reality, not the inventions of creative marketers. Businesses and other institutional usage would draw on all of the operational realities of their existence (and the functional attributes of their products and services) to populate conversations with the substance of things worth talking about.

The classical world valued the merits of objectivity, consensus, and the other attributes of shared experience because they yielded facts, not just opinions (Socratic dialogue, anyone?). No Athenian orator or Roman counsel would have been satisfied with conversations in which steadfast opinions were aired and everyone agreed to disagree; social experience had a purpose, almost a linear direction to it. How this could impact business and other institutional usage is a big question...I think some brands actually embrace this idea, if not understanding the whole ideal, when they transparently manage customer service and FAQ sites. It's a start.

A Social Renaissance

I think it's helpful to restate some of the primary qualities of the European Renaissance that transformed the Middle Ages into the modern world during the 14th to 17th centuries:

  • 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

This classical revival gave us repeatable science, market economies with merchant classes, and individual relationships with God. These were all net new innovations in society, yet they were made possible by innovators who first embraced very old ideas and traditions. This is the central, enabling thesis of a renaissance as well as the guiding principle of a revolution: Find your way home before you start off toward undiscovered lands. Failing to do so means you'll most likely spend your time repeating the recent past, however new it might feel (or be) to you.

I'd suggest that's exactly what we're doing now when it comes to how we see and use social media; in fact, we're all too willing to throw out principles, definitions, and traditions in order to allow for new ones to emerge from what appears new to us. Our social experience is utterly removed from those of the past. If something old doesn't fit our hopes for novelty, we label it old-fashioned and no longer relevant, and occupy ourselves with new principles, definitions, and theories.

What an old idea indeed.

It's time for us to imagine a revolution in which we don't just obliterate the institutions of yesterday and rewire our world today, but instead affirm what is real and true and then use it to build a truly new and better future. Imagining what those changes might be in our lives would be a lot more interesting and productive than spinning "how to" lists for our new digital whatever. I can guarantee that it would beat pondering the next social campaign to waste consumers' time.

Instead, it could enable us to truly change our world. It's time for a Social Renaissance.

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