Why Social Media is Scary

January 11, 2009

Best Of, Social Media

As one of my company’s social media leads, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a wide range of people about social media.  From our most senior VPs to senior executives within the government to our summer interns, every group has their own set of questions, concerns, and pre-conceived notions about social media and what it means for them.  Over time though, I’ve realized that they all one thing in common.  They could all agree on one thing.

Social media is scary.

Let me tell you why.  Businesses and our government are structured in a very hierarchical way – everyone is part of an org chart, everyone has a boss, and everyone is working to get to the next level.  Why?  Because inevitably, the next level brings more pay, more power, more respect, and more influence.  In the current organizational structure, everyone’s role is nicely identified on the org chart and with that, there is a structured way to act.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever said or have been told something like, “you can’t contact him directly – get in touch with your manager first,” or “draft an email for me to send to him,” or even better, “talk to “Public Affairs and Legal to get that approved before sending it out.”

The problem with this structure is that social media renders these traditional roles and responsibilities obsolete.  It introduces unpredictability and opportunity, unauthorized emails and tremendous insights, inappropriate language and humor.  Social media gives everyone a voice, whether they want it or not.

That’s a scary concept.

  • For junior employees – “Yeah, that’s great that I can start a blog that everyone in the organization can read, but what will I say?  What if my grammar is wrong or I spell something wrong – will people think I can’t write?  What if I disagree with something that my manager says?  What if I write too much and my boss wonders why I wasn’t working?  I don’t know – I’ll have to really think about it.”
  • For developers, programmers and other IT staff – “Ummm, I became an IT programmer because I hate people.  I don’t like speaking out, and really enjoy just coding and sticking to myself.  Now, you’re making me blog about my work?  I have to post my code to a wiki?  But, I can’t – it’s not ready for prime time yet.  I can’t just post draft content out there – let me get my manager to review this first.”
  • For managers – “So, how much time is my staff going to be spending blogging/reading blogs rather than doing actual work?  If my staff have questions about their project, their career, or their work environment, I want them coming to me, not blogging about it for the whole world to see.  I’ve got an MBA and have been with the organization for five years – why would I put my work out there for people to change and mess up?”
  • For senior leadership – “What happens when people start using these platforms to just complain about everything?  Why would I want to give everyone a place to whine about every little thing that’s bothering them?  I can’t possibly keep up with every comment, question, and suggestion that goes up – I don’t have the time to do that!”

At the heart of all these questions is an underlying fear of the unexpected. People now have a voice, a freedom to say what they want and talk to whomever they want.

In the traditional business culture of org charts, everyone is relegated to their role and everyone lives by that – it is very easy (and fits nicely onto a PowerPoint slide).  Before we had social media at my organization, if we got an email from someone we didn’t know, all we had to go on was their directory listing – “ohhh, I just got an email from one of our Principals – I’ll have to ask my manager if it’s ok to respond directly to them or not.”  Now, I can click on anyone’s name and see not only their entire bio and a picture, but also their entire history of contributed intellectual capital(IC).  I can see their blog postings, their wiki edits, their bookmarks, and their skillset.  I’ve gotten this a lot lately as people within my organization have tried to say that they’re social media “experts” yet I can click on their name and find out they haven’t blogged, they’ve made one wiki edit, and they’ve only logged into our social media platform once.  Really?  You’re a social media “expert?”  Thanks, but I’ll pass and contact the guy in San Diego who has been editing the wiki like a fiend, adding great IC on social media.

Social media allows people to easily subvert the traditional organizational hierarchy.  Whereas that title or degree that followed your name used to be all the authority you needed, you’re now being judged by what, if anything, you’ve contributed.  I’ve run into quite a few senior PhDs who turned out to be brilliant and just as many who left me asking how they got through undergrad – I now have more information at my disposal to make my own determination before I ever even meet them.  This transparency scares people because they’re now forced to show their skills and demonstrate their expertise.

Social media gives employees an unprecedented ability to use their voice to gain credibility, influence, and power within the organization – for better or for worse.  Junior employees can quickly become valued and respected or suspended and reprimanded members of the organization because they now have a voice.  Middle managers can lose their power and credibility if they don’t use their voice.  Senior leaders can lose total control of their organization if they don’t listen to these voices.

No matter what level you’re at, social media can be very scary.  On the other hand, it can be an incredible opportunity.  Will you face your fears and take advantage of the opportunity or hide from the fear it instills?

*Image Courtesy of Flickr user Ack Ook*

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About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

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