Big Blue World

Was at City University last night to see Thomas Gensemer, Managing Partner at Blue State Digital, talk about the use of social media as an engagement tool based on their experience running that strand of the Obama campaign.

I have to say that I was very taken by his approach. I was expecting something more technology focused, buzzword laden but instead the focus was very much on using simple technologies to build on basic good comms practice.

Some things I took away from the talk:

1. Be clear about why you are communicating. Do you expect the recipient to do something as a result? If so what? How will you know? How are you supporting them to achieve that? How does this become an engagement as opposed to just a one off?

2. Scale can be a way of derisking engagement. With 10 people if 2 disagree with you then that’s 20% of the audience actively against you, with 10 million people then even if 10,000 disagree with you it does not have the same impact.

3. If you are going to use technology then be clear why that platform. If the core value to you is being able to data mine the information about the people you are engaging with then doing that through Facebook or Bebo just means you have gifted that information to the platform owner. Not only that but you are now entangled in their brand values, viz. recent Facebook change of terms controversy.

4. Email works. Not email newsletters, no one reads them unless they are very specialised and effectively fanzines, but clear short emails which link to useful things. How can I get involved? What are the next steps? What resources are available to me? I liked the line about how the energy spent on email newsletters is vast and the return so slight.

5. Trust the people. User generated content can be gold. A recording of a teacher, a film of a volunteer these were the powerful things that stick in the mind.

6. But don’t get captured. It’s about facilitating community engagement, not community diktat. Be clear, be brave, don’t just delete and hide from things which challenge or embarrass but also do not get captured. Be clear what is up for discussion and what is settled.

7. Make it real and make it tangible. “I clicked here and I did this and now I am making this difference.”

None of this is unexpected, none of it rocket science so why are we still hooked on the idea that if we provide a platform that somehow, automagically, a topic will become interesting and people will become engaged?

Oh and

Battleship Row

I have just finished reading “Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the US Navy” by Robert L. O’Connell. Naval history is not a particular interest of mine but I found the book fascinating.

Battleships, like dinosaurs, have an ability to capture the minds of small children. They are huge and dangerous and, without getting tiresomely Freudian, they do symbolise power.

The problem is the potential gulf between symbol and reality, the battleship as signifier rather than combatant.

And that brings me to IT and social networking.

The battleship was the logical consequence of decisions that were rational and coherent in their own world. The bigger the ship, the greater the firepower and the armour it could carry, so the only counter was an even bigger ship or even more ships of an equivalent size. This then led to a constant spiral of growth as battleships became larger and more numerous.

Battleships also had the benefits of being a visible symbol of national power, of keeping an industrial base and skilled workers in work, and preserving a rigid hierarchy of authority – naval officers would start out in a small ship and then work their way through an orderly career path of destroyer, cruiser, battleship.

The problem was that the world where the battleship made sense was a world where planes and submarines and torpedoes and fast surface craft did not exist. Experience showed time and again that the battleship was a target, much more than a successful weapon.

It would be easy to mock those who clung to the romantic vision of the battleship long after experience showed that it was just a very big target but we all do similar things. Letting go of beliefs when the evidence changes is a difficult thing to do.

I wonder if our current battleship is the office? Or rather the bureaucracy which we embody in the office?

The office bureaucracy has many benefits. It is a visible symbol of an organization’s power and status. It provides work for large numbers of people. And it provides a visible hierarchy for people, from the post room to the board room, there is a place for everyone.

Hmm, it all sounds kind of familiar.

So are social networks and IT things that fit inside that model or are we among the disruptive change agents that mean that the office bureaucracy will go the way of the battleship?

I din’t have the answer but I find the question intriguing.