If social media are the answer, what’s the question?

Some people say that social media are changing the way we communicate. Others — and I am one of them — say that social media aren’t changing how we communicate; technology now simply allows large-scale communication over great distances that mirrors the way people have always interacted. (I suspect attitudes on this point are influenced by whether you grew up in the anonymity of a city or in a small town, which my mother once defined as a place where people stop you on the street to inform you you’re pregnant; they’re right; and you weren’t aware of it yet.)

But technology alone is not enough to explain the emergence and exponential growth of online social networks.  Something else has to be going on, but what?

I suspect it is a natural response to the accelerating pace of change and innovation in our society.

Let me first clafiry terms. According to Norbert Alter, a professor at Université Paris Dauphine and business sociologist, change is the transition from one steady state A to a second steady state B. Innovation is part of the transition process. Today, in most work contexts, we have left behind steady state A, but without ever reaching a new steady state. We are in a state of constant flux, a state he calls movement.

To make a long, well researched and intelligently articulated argument short, this perpetual movement is psychologically exhausting. Steady states allow us time to mentally rest, recover and appropriate innovation. Just as a muscle temporarily loses its power if it is overused, we need periods of calm to allow us to cope with change. Periods of calm allow routines to emerge, and routines help us reduce uncertainty.

Since we can’t stop the constant flux around us, the organizations we have built — companies, governments etc. — try to reduce uncertainties by creating rules and protocols. Some examples are standards, checklists, traceability, sustainability reporting and other attempts to quanitfy, measure and ultimately control the crazy, chaotic and complex world around us. The problem is that all of these systems are really dykes holding back the sea; they buy us time without definitively resolving the problem of perpetual movement.

The result is that most people are faced with a growing number of systems and controls at exactly the same time they are being urged to be innovative, to embrace change, etc. The demands are fundamentally contradictory and ultimately create a higher state of uncertainty, like a computer that freezes because it cannot resolve two contradictory commands. Constant flux, uncertainty and contradiction put people in a state of psychological distress and trigger identity and related crises.

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That is where social media come in…or more accurately social networks. Informal networks are sources of the information, savoir-faire and coping mechanisms that our organizations are no longer able to offer in the form of group identity, predictability and heritage. These networks function according to a logic of non-transactional giving and receiving. We generously contribute our ideas, content and know-how into the system, confident that the system will eventually pay us back, but expecting no immediate tit for tat. How that system of exchange works, though, is the subject of another blog post (and another, even more brilliant, book by Norbert Alter.

If you speak French and are interested in exploring these ideas in more depth, I recommend L’innovation ordinaire by Norbert Alter. Presses universitaires de France, éditions Quadrige, 3ème édition 2010.

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