The Not-so-Great Social Media Debate

If you’re like me, you enjoyed the recent debate stimulated by Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker article titled Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted. (You might also enjoy his follow-up interactions with readers).

In nutshell, Gladwell compared a 1960 sitdown strike in the American South with the social activist uses of social media, particularly as promoted by digiterati royalty Clay Shirky. He found it wanting. Twitter is great for promoting awareness, Gladwell says, but hardly for promoting commitment. And the civil rights movement had its own channels for promotion; word did get around even pre-twitter.

I kind of enjoy Gladwell’s contrarian, “I prefer real books.” But he hardly has the last word. For an example of a good critique, including Shirky’s reaction, read Scotnetwork’s well-covered viewpoint.

But there’s a broader perspective here that we’re all missing.

Ho Hum, Another Boring Old vs. New Debate

Gladwell went back to 1960 for his example. Fast forward two decades, to the introduction of voicemail in about 1980. You can read about the technical history of voicemail, but I want to focus on what I remember as the commercial reaction at the time.

I was working at a consulting firm, the MAC Group, at the time. (Jamie Dimon, for a few months, administratively reported to me—one of my better party trivia). Voicemail came to us as a Rolm product. At the time, three aspects of the system quickly grabbed our attention.

Implication One. Back then there was a key job—that of telephone receptionist. Like many other companies, a single person typically sat near the front door of the office, and performed two functions: greeting those who came in the door, and answering the phone. First implication: job insecurity.

Implication Two. Cost-benefit. As I recall, quite a bit of time was spent analyzing (we were, after all, a management consulting firm) the cost-benefit ratio of the new system. Was it a new item, with new value? So thought the nerds of the time. Or was it simply a new efficiency toy, to be justified by the job redundancies it made possible? So thought the hard-asses and Luddites of the time.

Implication Three. How could you make money off this thing? To be honest, I recall less of this discussion around voicemail than around the other two–but this was early in our love for things technoid. This question—how it would make money—became the obsessive question for later generations of techno-toys. Think laptops, PDAs, LANs, document management systems—and all that was before we even got the Big Deal—the Internet.

All of these waves of technology add up to one conclusion above all others: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  The more things change, the more it’s the same thing.

The Things That Stay the Same

1.    We constantly mistake plumbing for business models. A phone is not a business model. Neither is voicemail. Neither is Twitter. They all start out as cool ideas, then get anointed as business models, then quickly move to plumbing. Nothing wrong with plumbing. Though before too long, you notice that it’s only plumbers who make money off plumbing.

2.     The real issue is not efficiency, it’s effectiveness. The importance of voicemail lay not in reducing secretarial positions, but in advancing the quality and range of communications possibilities. Voicemail didn’t ruin communication—it altered it. Ditto Twitto.

3.    The new issues get framed in the old terms. Twitter and Facebook are neither the savior of civilization, nor the antichrist. They are not good, or bad. New and old media will find their own levels. One is wide and flat; one is deep and narrow. The world has room for both. They will sort out.

 Maybe it’s me showing my age, but I find the debates interesting, yet ultimately boring. 

I prefer, of course, to think of that as wisdom, borne of perspective. 

You, of course, will think what you will. That’s what we as humans do.   

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