The paradox of social media is that social media is so attractive precisely because it is the least social form of communication human beings have ever invented.

Disclaimer: Sean McGuire is a colleague of mine and has a critical but constructive perspective on social business/enterprise 2.0. He intended to post his findings as a comment to one of my posts. But the content is so valuable that I decided to give his personal (and unchanged) opinion room on my blog. I am looking forward to your comments!

1) Social media is attractive because it enables humans who possess no social skills to interact with other humans.

When it comes to social contacts, one thinks of getting acquainted with somebody, learning about that person and interacting directly with him or her. But when it comes to social media, it is a proven fact that one can interact with others without knowing anything about them. Even when one encounters a stranger on the street and speaks to him, there is some additional personal contact besides merely the words. One immediately learns something about the person. But on social media, regardless of your general knowledge of a few details, such as what one did last week, or even after one sees a posted picture of the person with whom he or she is communicating on social media, one does not really know much of anything about him or her except the things one has been told by that person. One can never really know another person through the exclusive contact of social media.

If it were possible to know someone exclusively through what one has been told, it could be assumed that we are all friends of Barak Obama, Elton John, Tiger Woods, Prince William, Vladimir Putin etc. The press and TV constantly give out information, much of it the same details from various news programs, advertisements and TV productions, thus we all supposedly know much the same detail about them. It is the same kind of information we get from social media (pictures, bio profiles and other written information). But another thing these various media, including social media, have in common is that we can never be sure whether this information is true. It is an empirical fact that news media give out selective information and advertising tends deliberately to distort information in order to sell a product or service, or, in the case of political advertising, to sell a candidate. In these matters it pays to be wary of what one accepts as fact or truth. Likewise, one should be cautious about what one “learns” from social media and to double check details before one trusts this information enough to accept it as fact or truth.

2) “Who cares about terminology? After all, it’s only a name”

A name, by nature, is a definition, a benchmark for expectations. The term “social media” implies that through such media, people actually have true social contact. This is perhaps most exemplified by the term “friending” on such media as Facebook. One tends to make the assumption that someone who has been “friended” is in fact a friend. However, fundamentally those so-called friends may be no more than the most casual acquaintances. The “likes” one receives for a posting on a page are only “tags” or ways of stating you have scanned or read content. In many cases, it is no more than a way of tagging something one has seen and might want to find later again, thus, the terms “friend” and “like” most often mean neither. This is tantamount to the misuse and distortion of authentic terms of language, and such distortions can have impact on the meaning of one’s speech. A certain naiveté attends the casual acceptance of such misuse of language which is morphed into jargon without the parallel realization of how distorted the terms become through that misuse.

The over-40 generation tend to realize the perils of such distortions of legitimate language and its perils, much more readily than those who were more or less born into the culture of its use, and tend to take precautions against misunderstanding by always questioning jargon when its use can be confusing. Thus older people tend to have more of a problem with the social media concept, than do younger people whose experience is shallower and their communication more readily peppered with jargon. Thus, the true meaning and depth of social interaction has a completely different impact on their lifestyle and readily accept the concepts, mistaken or distorted as they may be, of social media, while older people with wider and deeper experience tend to distrust these concepts. To them, it is beyond comprehension that one can have “friends” on Facebook that one has never met, that one does not know and that, in most cases, one ultimately does not care about.

One can compare the correspondence via social media to the old-fashioned practice of communication with a “pen-pal” by letter, but there are distinct differences. One learned a lot more over time via a series of many letters written by a pen-pal over several years than one does from the brief and rapid fire communication of people through social media. First of all, the written letter requires a thought process that encompasses the milling over of concepts and the culling of detail, whereas the short burst of words via social media seems to require a lot less real focus. Second, the pen-pal relationship was taken more seriously in the past than is the relationship of “friends” via social media, when one can “friend” and “unfriend” the person on the other end of the correspondence by the pressing of a button.

3) This misleading terminology also prevents employees from using it in their work space.

Employees in a workplace tend to want to work with colleagues in a professional manner, while keeping those relationships separate from their private lives. This is a selective choice based on the fact that one does not choose his or her co-workers, but is pushed together with them out of the necessities of the workplace. Although friendships can and do develop among co-workers, this is not the norm, but the exception to the norm.

If one meets ones line manager in the gym sitting next to him in the sauna, he might well feel too uncomfortable to go back to that gym. It is a good example of the selective process for social contact which many might well want to avoid. Social media can confuse this fact through the general misconception that, because one can chat with the CEO of his company, one is actually well acquainted with him or her. In fact, sitting next to ones CEO in the sauna is a much more realistic option for personal contact. On social media, that CEO is not necessarily ones best friend.

The reality is that, although one can chat with the CEO of a large organization one cannot assume that one has a true social relationship with him or her. For both communication partners, the relationship can only be built on the real information they have exchanged. It would be safer to assume that when encountering ones CEO on ,the elevator, he is unlikely to say ”Hey, you’re the guy I just had an interesting chat with.” Chances are more likely that he neither knows you nor cares whether he knows who you are at all.

4) Clarifying what Social media actually is, is a precondition to help companies benefit from this phenomenon.

This matrix shows that personal meetings are the most complex communication form:

Communication Matrix

A personal meeting means you are at the same place at the same time, speak the same language. Note that letters, blogs chats ect. can be translated. Also note that face to face communication is the only communication method that creates no electronic record that captures the content. Phone calls and all other electronic communication forms automatically create historical data that is stored on some server, even if you personally have no access to that information.

The phone call is second in row, it is also personal and requires the same time and same language. The callers voice adds much additional information to the spoken words. For example: emotions, pitch and volume. In addtion the participants voice identifying the person you are calling and ensures you are talking with is a conversation partner you intend to talk to. (At least if you are aquainted and have a social relationship).

All other communications forms require communication partners to use non vocal communication, and this means they need to translate the information into, written text, drawings, pictures or videos to enable information exchange appropriate for the information channel selected.

The third point to highlight is the fact that face to face communication is the only communication form that is not automatically archived, with the rare exception that your meeting is videotaped or recorded. In face to face communications humans tend to protect their privacy by disguising feelings and attempting to act in a way that seems favourable to their own image.

5) Personal meetings require good social skills

Personal meetings are the most intensive communication form and they inevitable reveal a lot of additional information (non-verbal). Social conventions, how you talk, how you behave and dress and many small things influence a face to face meeting and leaf a lot of room for interpretations.

In addition personal meetings are in real time and are often governed by emotions, immediate and spontaneous actions and your body language is sending so many signals that it is hard to disguise the real meaning of your words. For example it will be hard to look happy and smile if you have just been told you will be fired and will lose your job.

In many cases social conventions might prevent you from talking about specific topics. For example if you meet somebody with a leather jacket and tattoos you will interpret his answers completely different, as if this person is carrying a business suite. And the guy with the letter jacked and Tattoo will most likely distrust the guy with the business suite and filter all communication with a certain bias.

Communication is often blocked because of personal likings and disliking’s. You might meet a person, feel uncomfortable, an try to run away as fast as possible. Using social media all of these personal considerations are irrelevant for your conversation.

6) Removing social context and conventions from communication increases its attractivity for humans

It is no coincident, that people will avoid face to face conversations when communicating bad news, for example it is much easier to call somebody and tell him you decline his invitation and can’t come to the birthday party, than informing him personally. In many cases phone calls are less personal than meetings, never the less they still create problems, the person you are calling might ask uncomfortable questions and judge your reaction, your voice modulations and speed, when answering.

Luckily we have SMS that goes even one step further. You simply write something like: “Sorry I can’t come to your party” and turn of your phone. Chances are good, your friends will be less angry at you, at least you informed them you won’t come and by the time you meet them in person, emotions and anger have faded away.

SMS can be rated as historical accident, invented in 1984 SMS is the most widely used data application in the world, with 3.6 billion active users. In 2010, 6.1 trillion SMS text messages were sent. This translates into 193000 SMS per second. SMS was an success nobody expected, but it is a learning lesson when it comes to human communication and can be seen as forerunner of social media. The only difference between SMS and Twitter is that Twitter is public.
Social media is the next logical step in this development, it allows humans to communicated directly with other humans they never have meet, know little or nothing about and in many case are not interested in knowing in the first place.

7) Social media the last logical step in removing social context and conventions from communication

View innovations have had such an enormous impact in society as social media has today. The only irony is that its attractivity is due to the fact that it allows humans to communicate in a non-social context. Social media allows users to act in a way that would be considered extremely rude when applied to traditional communication forms.

Imaging yourself meeting with friends in a restaurant. You suddenly get up walk out of the room, without explanations, disappear for 20 minutes and returned back to the table. This is a social no go, your friends will expect you to explain your behaviour.

When it comes to social media, nobody will be surprised if you are suddenly offline and come back after 20 minutes to continue the conversation. It is obvious that there are much less rules you need to follow and much less social restrictions in the social media space than in real live. Many things that might ruin a real live friendship are of no interested in social media lead communication.

There are no geographical limitations, people that would refuse to sit in the same train compartment or on the same park bench, people from different races and religions that would never talk to each other, people with completely different social statues and political background can communicate. Why? Because all these aspects are almost irrelevant in a social media environment?

Humans seem to like social media precisely because conversations are striped from these social burdens and conventions, that would prevent those people from starting a conversation in the first place. In addition, knowing you will never meet this person substantially reduces the fear of being rejected and promotes starting a conversation. For example you might comment on a tweet or post and like it, until you find out more about the person that posted it.

8) It’s hard to offend somebody if you are not addressing any specific person

Social media tends not to addressed anybody specific. When blogging and posting, you are not addressing dedicated people you are making your opinion public and waiting for “somebody you personally don’t know” to react. The same is true for Facebook. You post a message to all your friends, you are sending a message to a group of people and not addressing a specific person. If it where personal you would call, send a E-Mail or a SMS. You will care little about who this person is and engage in additional conversations if the feedback seems interesting (negative or positive).

In real live, it definitely is a big difference who is in the same room when you make a specific statement. When posting or tweeting, it is obvious that your statement won’t be liked by everybody, but on the other hand you couldn’t care less, because you don’t know these people and nothing will happen to you.

9) In case you offend somebody you can always justify yourself by adding social context as excuse.

In many cases you have absolutely no control who will access that information, and what the information you post will be used for. If you send a Tweet, anybody can read it, you can never remove the content and the person reading it, will in many case, not even know the social context the message was created in, thus not being able to interpret it properly.

Carriers and relationships have been destroyed by accident or on intention. In addition seeing the global scope of information exchange, you might phrase something that sounds harmless for you, in your real live social context, but might be completely offending to readers in a distant part of the world, with a completely different culture or religious background.

We all know stories of people posting a Tweet or a comment on Facebook and getting angry replies, being harassed by media and public: “how can you make such a statement” and then this person has to stand trial in public, and answer questions, what exactly he meant. Any justification and explanation will always include a lengthy explanation, why in his social context and with his social background this message must be interpreted in a completely different way, and is not so horrible as it might appear without knowing all these social related facts.

You might invite people to a birthday party, not knowing who will come, and be surprised those persons, will come and destroy the apartment you are living in. (your friends!).

There are many stories, where long or short term Facebook relationship, have decided to meet in person because they like each other, only to be disappointed and regret the meeting, because it is too personal, to intimate, and they discover things about each other , that makes future communication totally inacceptable, for example social differences, behaviour ect.

The same of course is true about personal meetings, if you have lunch with a work colleague and he starts talking about his marriage problems, you might want to avoid seeing him, knowing all these details makes you uncomfortable.

10) If this is all true why is social media so attractive to humans?

It seems, that what makes social media so popular, is the fact that humans have invented a communication form that removes the necessity of real live social interaction to an absolute minimum and thus removes many prejudices that would prevent people from starting a conversation in the first place.

The second thing that makes social media so attractive, is that you can communicate with people you definitely will never meet in person and this means you will neither be judged based on your personal appearance nor will you be held accountable for what or who you pretend you are in your social network.

And most important removing social conventions gives users the feeling you are save.

After all you can unfriend a person, turn of your computer, block a contact and easily ignore it and don’t need to fear any unpleasant consequences. Chances you will meet this person on your way to work, in the park or supermarket are next to zero, because this person lives on the other side of planet or at least several thousand kilometres from your home.


11) Are people really scared to interact in real live?

  • Removing all social aspects of communication results in reduced stress and fear of asking questions.
  • 99.99% of all humans are afraid of being exposed by asking stupid questions or giving wrong answers!
  • Stripping information from all the social “rubbish” and reducing it to the information needed helps!

It is always surprising, to watch, small or larger crowds, for example conventions, large meetings, where a question is asked to the public. In most cases there is a moment of silence. Nobody wants to answer. It is a live threatening situation! Often 99% of the audience knows the answer, but nobody dears to raise his or here voice and give the answer, and why?

Fear of not being right, and exposing oneself to public scrutinizing, and being ridiculed!

Imaging your self walking into your CEO’s office, interrupting him and asking a silly question, you might be seriously rebuffed, your carrier might be in danger, but a chat messaged most likely will simply be ignored and forgotten immediately.

Social media is thus, the least frightening communication form humans have developed. It requiring the absolute minimum of social skills and is most interesting to humans who have problems with traditional communication forms in real live.

12) Final Conclusion:

Social media seems to be a perfect tool to improve communications in an organizational context, if it is used correct, because you can communicate with people and ask for information, avoiding all the complicated social interactions and rules normally dominating and in many cases preventing, traditional communicating forms.

The good news is, most employees are primarily interested in getting the information they need to complete a specific task, removing all social barriers that are connected to traditional communication forms, turns out to make those employees more effective.

Most employees will have less problems opening a chat window and asking a question than going to the same person, interrupting him and asking him in person.

The biggest benefit of social media is, it encourages employees with little or no social communication skills to participate in social activities because:

  • You don’t care who this person is!
  • You are not forced to meet him in person!
  • You don’t care what this person looks like!
  • You don’t care how old he is, and what his personal preferences are!
  • You don’t even care about gender!
  • You don’t care in what kind of mood he is!
  • You avoid social conventions!
  • You avoid non-verbal information exchange (this gives additional security)!
  • You are not deterred by strange behaviour or appearance!
  • You don’t judge this person based on non-verbal context (way he speaks or reacts)!
  • You avoid company hierarchy!
  • You can ask for information at any time of the day!
  • You can ask for information, no matter where the person is located (no geographical constrains)!
  • You can ask people, you don’t even know (post a question)!
  • You are not forced, to know anything about the person, except that he can provided information!
  • You are secure of being repelled!
  • You might be totally desperate and have nobody you can ask!
  • You can ask people you don’t even know (crowed sourcing, ask the entire world if you want)!

13) From an organizational perspective social media promises to be an enabler because it

  1. Will animate all employees to communicate, even those that hate normal social interaction.
  2. Gives employees security in asking questions and spreading information ( no reprisals expected).
  3. Reduces traditional communication barriers (culture, social, hierarchical).
  4. Reduces the interaction, to an absolute minimum (only ask for information not more).

Taking this in consideration social media will be the major facilitator to build the most efficient work place in the future.

2 thoughts on “The paradox of social media is that social media is so attractive precisely because it is the least social form of communication human beings have ever invented.

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