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Social Media and the rise of Alternative Economic Cultures

October 15, 2012

As I was waking this morning I caught a trailer for this evening’s Radio 4 programme about Alternative Economic Cultures. It presents an interview, by the BBC’s Paul Mason, with Prof Manuel Castells. [the hashtag is #LSECastells by the way].

I’ll be listening, and reflecting, tonight – but the fragment that I heard in the trailer was immediately enough to trigger this post. I quote, though definitely not verbatim, from the realms of half-sleep.

“ … two fundamental changes… changes in the network… changes in psychology, in the way individuals think…”

If the interview can deliver on that hook, then here is something I have been looking to articulate for a long time. So – my own take on those two things [before I go off and read Prof Castells’ book] ?

The Network. The last decade will come to be seen by future historians as either; Scenario 1. the beginning of a new era [no less ;0) ] in which all individuals gained immediate, near zero cost, access to each other. Having done so they were able to create and propagate a multitude of ideas, ideals, processes, structures, behaviours, connections and further technologies which bypassed generations-old monopolies of channel, doctrine and resource. Hence my conviction that ‘Web2.0’ is still a more significant concept than ‘social media’ and that it is a BC/AD divide, or Scenario 2, would be that we have just witnessed a flourishing and brief flowering of All2All interaction, but that the monopolies are not done yet and will take away ‘The Network’, the flash of mutual visibility we are still attenuating ourselves to… either for ever, or for some time until it can be re-asserted. Either way, right now, that’s what I take “changes to the Network” to mean – heard from my semi-conscious duvet world this morning.

“Changes to individuals”, to their psychology, their self-perception and their values, is the other factor I briefly half-heard in the trailer. These changes are not independent from the Network story. They may have helped make now the right time for Networks. In turn they will certainly have been impacted by the Network… given a far greater chance to propagate internationally, and to be tested, challenged and thus evolve more rapidly.

If that’s what all this is about – then  I agree whole-heartedly. These are the big changes… an understanding of which will bring a crucial insight into what is happening in the world culturally, economically and politically. [And I chose that order carefully]. I imagine I’m writing this now, rather than at 10pm, as a way of placing a bet, or making a prediction to myself.

Something very big could hinge on the truth of those two assertions, about what has fundamentally changed in the world. The change in the Network, and the degree to which individuals have fundamentally changed as regards values, motives and self-awareness, will eventually determine whether the word ‘Alternative’ can be deleted from ‘Alternative Economic Cultures’… whether a plurality of Economic realities are here to stay. That would be in defiance of Economics as an almost absolute physical science, grounded on “givens” about human nature and the means of exchange.

No point in pursuing that even further today. But here are two of my old thoughts brought out and dusted off, ready to be added to this discussion. ‘Authentic Conversations’ and ‘People as Ends in Themselves’.

The latter comes from the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. I’ll spare you most of the philosophy, thus avoiding the risk of correction from my academic betters. Kant’s so called ‘Categorical Imperative’ is that “you should treat people as ends in themselves” – rather than as means to some other end. The imperative seems to mean that you value people, regard them as equals, no more nor less than yourself and your own ends (including your own income and security) , but it also asks us not to get carried away with some abstract concept of a greater good or truth; an end to which it’s OK to temporarily sacrifice people. It seems to me that a world which adopted the output from Kant’s moral laboratory would be one in which we were not only compassionate individuals, but also where we didn’t sacrifice ‘other people’ to deferred goals such as ‘the Kingdon of Heaven’, or ‘The Fatherland’, or ‘The Economy’ and ‘Economic Growth’… let alone Socialism, Toryism, or even Liberalism for their own sakes. I wonder, with just a flicker of optimism, whether the global change in individuals is in part about coming closer to Kant’s principle.

‘Authentic Conversations’ comes from my own observation of the emergence, on networks, of the ability of groups to ‘bust’ falsehoods and hypocrisy. Networks seem able and disposed to undermine falsity which might once have persisted indefinitely under skilled image management and PR. I have also realised that [right up to some as yet uncharted limit where ‘bad things’ can still happen],  you get more out of the Network if you are able to be open and truthful. This, in turn, requires knowing who you are – as well as recognising when disclosure may still be ‘too much information!’. Mark Twain apparently said “Always tell the truth. That way, you don’t have to remember what you said”. That’s at the heart of the idea that there is no point trying to present a false persona, or more likely several false personae, to a network of people if what you are seeking is help in developing and sustaining the best you that you can hope to be [that ‘end in itself’ again].

That’s a personal approach to the social web.  You can use it as a vehicle for the self that you want to project, in order to achieve the ends that you desire – wealth, security, celebrity, connection, affirmation and so on. Or you can use it as part of a process to understand and develop a true self and sense of purpose, in ‘fair exchange’ with others. The latter is not without risk – it probably means a more gradual process of evolving who you trust [beginning with your ‘real world’ connections], and how much you disclose… as opposed to the wholesale broadcasting of your fully formed public, and maybe commercial or professional, face to everyone and anyone who might see it.

To conclude, for now, I want to apply both these thoughts to Brands… to the businesses who are by definition a big part of ‘Economic Cultures’ and who are confronted by those two big changes that I [think I] overheard in my waking moments. As Brian Solis, simply but profoundly put it “brands are becoming people and people are becoming brands.”

Ticking all the above concepts of against Brand behaviour you get:

  • In the case of ‘the Network’, Brands are being challenged by finding themselves on the same footing as individuals. Most of Brands are still searching for a ‘social media strategy’ which gets beyond their desire to push messages en masse using their big resources, and begins to make sense of how they can take part in conversations. Every step along the way they are put at risk by old roles, processes, behaviours and metrics, dragging them back to a ‘1.0’ relationship with their customers.  Internally they are also teased by glimpses of how ‘the Network’ could harness the creativity of employees to tackle long-standing structural flaws and cope with the pace and volatility of future change – but they are wary of how this could also challenge the Brand’s constitution. Hence…
  • In the case of ‘Changes to Individuals’, Brands have a twofold challenge. They have to cope with customers and prospective customers whose self-image is changing, who are more likely to cut across a number of trends rather than form neat segments, and who may no longer want to see themselves as “consumers” – i.e. having a role in society and the economy which is about “just buying stuff”.  But Brands which have come of age, which have acquired some kind of emerging self-consciousness, are also changing. Brands themselves are trying to articulate new and sustainable stories about who they are and what they are for. This is again amplified by encounters with ‘the Network’ and the realisation that they can gain by being consistent in social media conversations or even, in some rare cases, learn about themselves and not just about their services, products or marketing messages. Again, internally they can also see how the people who make up the Brand are an active part of what it is, and not just neutral means to the same old end… hence…
  • Brands now have a fundamental challenge in how they decide to view PEOPLE.  Individual human beings have been starting to realise that they are a bundle of different streams of thought, emotion, association, and conditioning. So are Brand!. What individuals learned, albeit largely those in some social, economic, cultural, political or religious elite, was that the stories and behaviours they cobble together on the run, to get by, may not be true, or the best… and that these can end up taking over the show. The same realisation may now be coming to Brands – as generations passed and resources were amassed, the =original story may have become obscured or replaced by new fabricated ones.  The elite, meanwhile, has broadened out quickly in recent decades – fuelled by social change, prosperity and then the big bang of ‘the Network’. Self-awareness, independence of mind, choice, confidence, restlessness and dissatisfaction are now being experienced by more people than ever before, and with access to tools and techniques which seem to be definably more effective. When Brands undergo something similar to the ‘Changes to Individuals’ it is a  revision of values and psychology which asks Brands whether they can afford to continue to treat people as means to an end – the end of sales and profit – rather than finding mutual value in treating them as ends in themselves. It asks Brands whether they should focus on behavioural research into how one way communication can trigger the desired buying behaviours… or whether insight really comes from a conversation which leaves neither the Brand nor the individual unchanged. It is in social media that these initial skirmishes are now taking place. It may seem fanciful – but I think those conversations could even induce Brands to reflect on what it means for them to be an end in themselves – as opposed to a means to generate ‘results’. So finally to:
  • ‘Authentic Conversations’. These are interactions between Brands and PEOPLE  [people outside, or inside, customers or non-customers, shareholders, partners, neighbours…] which possess enough of the qualities of a good person-to-person conversation to create value for both parties. They are conversations in which, because the Brand is able to achieve a degree of openness about itself, it can rely on the validity and usefulness of the feedback thus obtained. At the same time it is an opportunity to genuinely impress those PEOPLE with the quality of its products, the potential of its future developments, and the sustainability of its goals and behaviours. The result would be that those PEOPLE come away wanting to purchase goods and services from the Brand and to act as advocates. On the Network it is inefficient for individuals to perpetuate fake selves or make unsupportable claims. It is unwise to be inappropriately self-disclosing to a mass audience. Exactly the same is true for a Brand. Authentic Conversations in social media don’t begin with campaigns and promiscuous mass broadcasts. They begin with conversations amongst a few friends, the making and testing of connections, honest debate, and then the broadening of these by genuine introduction and recommendation. They don’t discriminate between commercial, professional and individual roles any more than they absolutely have to… they judge the value of a conversation on its content, on its merits, and on the authority of the other parties. They necessarily start small – though the point of these Authentic Conversations is that they do eventually become massive. Finally, just as having Authentic Conversations is, for individuals, about alternating between talking with others and ‘having a word with yourself’, Brands that want to benefit from this may first have to explore ways of nurturing Authentic Conversations within.

Big global Brands are now the aristocrats of Economic Culture. I think that we all have to gain from bringing them into a common conversation. The measure of my belief in this is that I am, literally, staking my own professional future on the proposition. That is where my own Authentic Conversations have lead. That is why I am now working with Brands who have decided to take the first steps down the path, to a version of Social Media Marketing which redefines most of that phrase. A Brand which can achieve a degree of authenticity will, like an individual who does so, acquire a very powerful and tangible charisma. It will win the admiration, cooperation and even friendship of people who will purchase its products and services, in a fair exchange of value, but who will also find it perfectly natural to defend the interests of the Brand, promote it to others, and find other ways of working and co-operating or co-creating with it. If you consider for a moment what is involved in getting to that, and what the resulting reality would be… maybe that is an Alternative Economic Model.

[FOOTNOTE: This essay makes some big assumptions – in particular it makes positive assumptions about the ‘thermodynamics’ of authenticity – about the ability and disposition of ‘the Network’ to bust the bogus and to confirm and endorse the useful truth. It makes positive assumptions about the overall effect of ‘the Network’ on autonomous, enlightened and compassionate behaviour as opposed to its ability to be harnessed for knee jerking, mass-hysterical movements of ignorance and hatred. I don’t deny this. What I say is that this is the platform from which, on behalf of those who see good commercial and moral reason to invest in the vision, I intend to explore precisely those assumptions.]
2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2012 6:19 pm

    An interesting post, but I think you might have overstepped a bit. I don’t see much evidence that all people have access to each other to interact. Even if this assumption was accurate, people don’t have the capacity to interact with more than a few. Folks with huge followings are no different that radio or TV broadcasters. The conversation is necessarily one sided. They occasionally reply to a follower to give the appearance of interactivity; sort of like offering an autographed picture.

    I do think there may be a change on the consumer to brand interaction. The power is shifting from the seller to the consumer because knowledge can be gained from a wide range of sources.

    • njbdartford permalink*
      October 15, 2012 7:16 pm

      Thanks Harold – great to hear from the Lone Star State on a cold and gloomy UK evening. Fair comment, and I should qualify. The All2All access is very much in principle – i.e. the fact that anyone could read my blog or twitter posts is a potential that just didn’t exist before – and it’s different in both kind and degree from the fact that anyone could, in principle, read something that I wrote on paper and stuck up in my window. I can afford reach that was previously only available to those who could afford to run, or advertise on, a national newspaper or a broadcasting channel. But all the tools and protocols that go on top of that – the lists, feeds, favourites, likes, filters, dashboards, hashtags, searches and follows are all in their infancy. All of them are ways in which people will, in future, be able to interact many-to-many with communities of interest and intention. At the moment your are right that celebrity, for example, buys attention on top of that reach, and may empower somebody to treat twitter like a broadcast channel… and drown out others before they can even begin to get traction with an audience.

      I think there’s something really interesting about the way in which Brands could recover some of the power that is passing from them to those consumers who share information and action. They can do so by swapping broadcasting for listening. Not crude monitoring, but real discriminating listening which takes time and thought to perfect. They then, paradoxically, regain some of their significance in the conversations, but only by using their superior resources to develop the capacity to respond positively to legitimate concerns and desires.

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