Managing the Symbolic Dynamics of Social Media

Your social media strategy needs to address social media as a symbolic as well as a material reality.  The management of symbols is different from the management of technology and confusing them can lead to both wishful thinking and missed opportunities.

Symbols are emotional objects pointing to something beyond themselves. Their value derives from what they point to and if that connection weakens, the value reverts to the material, not the symbolic, characteristics.

For instance, advertisements for diamonds emphasize enduring love because diamonds are valued for their symbolic connections to love and permanence.

If a symbol isn’t durable, our relationship with it resembles infatuation.  Initially, the excitement of being in love suspends critical thinking in favor of hope that a substantial relationship will emerge. As the thrill subsides, the symbolic attraction diminishes and critical thinking returns.  If we haven’t established connections between things that really matter, we drift apart.  Meanwhile, conflicts and incompatibilities that were obscured by the initial symbolic glow manifest and require resolution.

A symbolic analysis of social media should address three broad areas:

  • What and why does social media symbolize? What are the deep sentiments that attach themselves to social media and why can it hold those sentiments?
  • How robust is the symbolism?  If the symbolic power isn’t durable, you’ll want to recognize the beginning of the end so you can shift your marketing, production and other initiatives to the material realities that are ascending, and
  • What flaws in social media’s material reality has the symbolic glow obscured?  An awareness of them will help you avoid potentially crippling liabilities down the line and recognize emerging market opportunities.

It’s not a coincidence that social media is taking off during a financial and business crisis that’s raised deep questions about the current system’s ability to serve the economic, social and environment needs of both individuals and society.

These emotionally traumatic times are making us yearn for an alternative that:

  • Is structurally different from the traditional way of working and doing business,
  • Decreases the power of the hierarchies we blame for the mistakes that got us here,
  • Heals the sense of alienation we’ve tolerated as the price of material wealth, and
  • Takes a more holistic approach to the world, and puts business, the primary force in society, into relation with our other needs.

Social media is a viable vehicle to carry that yearning because it:

  • Is a very different way of communicating and therefore holds out the promise of deep, structural change in individual and organizational consciousness,
  • Subverts the hierarchies toward which so much of our anger and disillusionment is directed,
  • Promises to connect us,
  • Transcends the boundaries between work, individual and collective life, and
  • Has a catchy name: “Social” has powerful associations with the individual and collective ideals we think have been ignored and the “media” taps into our infatuation with technology.

Each of these symbolic dimensions has a different set of parameters that determine how and how long its power exerts.

Social media’s ability to tap into a desire for deep structural change depends on both our continued desire for fundamental change and social media’s ability to maintain its status as different.

However, nothing stays different for very long because as we get to know it, it stops being new and different.

The argument for a new approach to social media metrics is based on the idea that this is a new paradigm.  The relative influence between this approach and a more pragmatic one could be a good indicator of social media’s perceived newness.

We have a love hate relationship with hierarchies, which structure religions, celebrity and many things between.  As much as we complain about our lack of influence, it’s very difficult to get sustained participation in the electoral process, public meetings, and various social organizations devoted to give people power.

Is the hierarchical structure the hierarchy’s to lose?  Will it be willing to curb its blatant excesses in order to placate a general public that has historically been willing to trade self determination for a sense of security, diversion and comfort?

Right now, we’re adrift.  If it appears we have the option to return to last year’s status quo or continue on an unknown path to a fuzzy and mysterious future, what will people choose?  If they choose to return, hierarchical thinking will return to the mainstream and the disruptive capabilities of social media may become the perceived problem instead of the hopeful solution.

The human need for connection is durable, and social networking connects us in new ways.  Which of those ways are real and which are overreactions? How can you be connected to 500 people on Linked In or follow 1500 people on twitter?  (If each of them does one tweet of 20 words a day, that’s 30,000 words each day or over 100 pages.)

Is the numeric accumulation of connections any different than the numeric accumulation of money or other status symbols?

Can social networking break down the barriers between work, individual and collective life as long as businesses have a legally mandated fiduciary responsibility to make a profit?  Social responsibility may be a good strategic position in some markets, but that even makes the balance more lopsided because a healthy society becomes part of the business equation instead of its own justification.

When the excitement about social media dies down, what are some of the enduring features of human nature that we’ll discover it’s been repressing?

There’s a tension between social and privacy and the excitement about being able to be social has caused us to overlook some of the ways it inhibits privacy. How will people feel when they learn that very little they do in a social media environment is private and all that information starts being used to sell them in intimate ways?

The ability to communicate leads to the expectation of communication.  The standard is approaching an immediate response even though this is contrary to almost all time management theories.  The need for solitude is real. Will the ability to connect anywhere, anytime stop being exciting and start becoming a burden?  Will our intimate relationships suffer from constant interruption?

Do social media cause cocooning? Because they let us create our own social networks, we may tend to minimize challenging environments in favor of nourishing ones.  Being adrift in a sea of productive friction can be a good thing.

Social media is both a symbolic and material reality.  A significant part of its current appeal relies on it symbolic power, which is based primarily on our dissatisfaction with the current system and yearning for something new.  There are opportunities to participate in these symbolic dynamics, but it’s important to realize that these underlying drivers will not last for long. Symbolic analysis and management can help you recognize the signs of their decay so you’ll know when to shift your emphasis to the material realm and both capitalize on social media’s functional capabilities and provide solutions to some of its previously ignored shortcomings.

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