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

Are the next innovations in social dependent on first upending our very premises and expectations?


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



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

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.

About the author

My technology experience mirrors the development of social technology, having first participated in interactive online gaming in the early 1970s while playing “Empire” on the University of Illinois’ pioneering PLATO system. I was an early user of the Whole Earth’s WELL (one of the first online communities) and I can program in FORTRAN and COBOL