Authors note - this is a draft in every way. Please share your feedback as I whittle and shape this into a more manageable article. TimeCover

Have you heard the news? Social media is going to save the world! Social media is everywhere. Even if you do not use Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, and even if you do not have your own blog or photo sharing site, just reading this post is a form of participation. And its hard to miss the references to social media appearing in the “real world”. TIME made no attempt to obfuscate their feelings about Twitter, titling their June 5 cover: “How Twitter will change the way we live.” There are experts, seminars, and snake oil salesmen just waiting to proselytize the life changing virtues of social media. And right on queue, there are contrarians who are all to eager to share the pit falls of social media. Sound hypocritical coming from someone who has published articles on the benefits of social media and healthcare? Perhaps if we could stop calling it social media, and pick apart what this is really about it would be clear that the evangelicals and the orthodox are both missing the mark. What we are really after is a cultural change from our own companies and the organizations we interact with.

The buzz phrase social media is a misnomer. Its not innately social and its not media. What we call social media is what geeks have been calling the read/write web for years. What those guys and gals expressed in a term borrowed from describing computer memory is more apt than social media. Read/write web refers to an internet that has as much give as it does take. The hipsters used their pointedly cynical humor and dubbed it Web 2.0 - the second version. We moved past billboards that told us something to chalk boards where we could write back, erase and expand. Tara Hunt borrowed the title of her book The Whuffie Factor from Cory Doctrow. Both Doctrow and Hunt use Whuffie to describe a sort of karmic and social capital that can be earned and expended on the read/write web like currency. We do not need to adopt Whuffie, but we do need to stop thinking that social media is a cure-all tonic or worse, simply a way to exploit people.

The problem with workshops, books and a formulaic approach to the read/write web is that most seem to fall short of addressing the core changes that have to take place in order to be successful. It could be argued that if the right systemic cultural changes are  made then the use of social media is simply a natural extension - an effect rather than a cause. Rather than trying to derive benefit from social media, if we dig into those who exemplify the purported wins there are deeper realizations about the individuals and organizations behind the examples.

Think about the examples of organizations that are often cited as doing social media right: Zappos, Bank of America, Mayo Clinic. These companies are recognized for monitoring their brand for customer service issues and reacting. In the active social media scene in Richmond Virginia, the local alternative paper, Style Weekly is  seemingly omnipresent. Style Weekly’s Twitter account is manned by editor and chief Jason Roop who does a prolific job of participating in discussion on local topics. Remember chocolate milk? Well the Nestle Bunny (or more accurately a guy named Kevin) sends out daily tweets about happiness. In fact, their entire social media presence is built around a happiness campaign. Its lighthearted content that is not taxing. For a slightly more serious example, look how Mayo Clinic freely shares content. Their YouTube channel and health library are compelling examples of free content. Other business make their mark via transparency. The often praised blog from hospital CEO Paul Levy is a striking contrast to traditional executive communications. Levy typifies the kind of leader who is so confident in his organization that he is willing to invite the world in on to see how the secret sauce is made.

Intrinsically there are four traits exhibited in these examples: reacting, participating, content creating and transparency. Those may sound easy to mimic and turn into a how-to book or webinar until you consider the organizational changes required to make them successful. Right now, could you apologize for your organization? Do you have the credibility or authority to deal with customers directly, and if so is your organization interested in listening to the feedback? Could you bring a pocket video camera to work and record an impromptu youtube video on how awesome your team is? What would legal say about that? Does your leadership tell you what they are thinking - what they are excited about and what keeps them up at night? If the answer to any of those  is no, then there is a good chance social media is not going to save you or change your world.

As individuals we have the similar challenges. The read/write web is a level playing field. Someone who joins in from their basement in PJs with a dusting of crumbs as the only evidence that potato chips were dinner has just as much of a voice as a CEO who only logs in during business hours. As healthcare social media expert Dana Lewis says: things break down when “[we] bring the real life power structures and hierarchy, which we all hate, into social media.” If we as individuals cannot be open and accepting, how can we expect the same from the organizations with whom we interact?

When we peel back the new catch phrases and use the older traditional labels, the challenge is more apparent. Fortunately, when we take it to the next step and get at the heart of the terms, their merit as a value for individuals is equally stunning.


Study the column on the right in conjunction with your favorite social media poster child. Chances are they live up to those ideals. Simply put, the people and companies who do this stuff well are in cultures that already support openness, empathy, friendliness and sharing. These are places with highly engaged employees who work in an environment that values what they have to say. These groups preform well and know it. When you have those things on your side, it is a natural extension to fling the doors open and invite others in.

Too often social media is mistaken as a marketing opportunity. In fact, many of the afore dissuaded books and lectures even manipulate the term into “social marketing”. We are willing to concede that there may in fact be marketing value in the read/write web. But, it is the providence of enlightened people and companies, not a wrought script for success. In fact, if you or your business are not ready to tackle the questions posed above, trying your hand at social marketing might do you a disservice.

Picture 8Consider this example twitter exchange. The first post was an emotional response to a business practice that I found unfavorable.  I was surprised to receive a response from Hilton’s frequent stay program at all; however, that quickly gave way to disappointment as they failed to bring the matter to a resolution. To be clear, an acceptable answer would have been as simple as “we are sorry to hear that, its our policy and here’s why we believe its best...” Instead I was led down the primrose path. It is probably not the fault of the individual(s) behind the HiltonHHonors account that they were unable to connect me directly with an individual. I suspect it is a corporate culture; Groups not talking to other groups, leaders not trusting other leaders and employees not empowered to solve problems rationally and empathetically.

When the first step, empathetic participation fails, it is easy to understand how the more complex traits also breakdown. Many self proclaimed entrepreneurs (perhaps that is an oxymoron) and companies are mistaking a mere presence on the read/write web for participation. In Predictably Irrational, Don Ariely highlights the human brain’s incredible ability to discern value. It is easy for us to filter the kinds of interactions we want, and the kind that waste our time. Usually those kinds of messages are easy to pick out. Email spam, telemarketing calls, junk mail - they are all one way messages with little or no value, so we toss them aside. The read/write web is no different. When a Facebook fan page or twitter feed is populated with drivel most people will disregard it quickly. This is again a sign of an internal challenge for businesses. Companies who speak to their customers in a monotone “big brother” voice, mostly like speak that way to their employees. When examined from the organization’s point of view, is your company the kind of place where employees are encouraged to give feedback? Do they participate in decision making processes? If that is not the case, then is it reasonable to expect your customers will feel any different when they try and interact with you?

In practical terms this should not discourage anyone or any organization from participating in the read/write web. The aim is to fuel organizational change. I would like to suggest that change is as simple as a commitment from an empowered reader of this message to manage their team differently. That is a brilliant and laudable step. The unfortunate reality is that true organizational change is complex. It takes visionary leadership who are willing to communicate the goals and importance of programs. It takes help, most companies, regardless of size, cannot get there on their own. But that does not mean there are not lessons to be learned from the grass-roots nature of the read/write web. There are some steps we can all take right to nudge our employers and the companies we interact with to the right conclusions:

•     Encourage volitional feedback on corporate intranet sites as well as social media forums (if they exist) •     begin feedback with an earnest compliment “we are doing great things with the new product...” •     Offer feedback as a question “...but could we sell it more cheaply to reach more people?” •     Thank each other for input and more importantly, never criticize it (see above, can you ask a question about it?) •     Make it a movement! Get everyone on your team onboard. Pretty soon your voice is too large, too polite and too constructive to be ignored.

Once we take a closer look at the companies that we enjoy interacting with, we can discover admirable cultures. Rather than focusing on the quick wins of social marketing, look to read/write web heroes as models for true change. Affect the change. Become a responsive, participatory, engaging and transparent organization and the benefits of social media will happen as a natural occurrence. That is is how the world will be changed.