When I first started getting in to social media, I was intrigued by its potential to disrupt spaces where power traditionally lies – ordinary people chipping away at the monoliths of institutions which have previously taken for granted their right to control information and knowledge.
How to respond…
How would those institutions respond? I could see three options – firstly ignore and hope it would go away, secondly appropriate social media spaces as additional communication channels, thirdly embrace the disruptive quality of social media to catalyse different sorts of relationships based on distributed rather than positional power.
Spellbound or underwhelmed?
These thoughts came back in to my mind when reading Using Social Media to Inform, Engage and Consult People in Developing Health and Community Care Services (HealthCare Improvement Scotland, 2013). It is full of information, advice and case studies to help organisations involve people in service changes. But I felt a bit disappointed. It didn’t quite capture the disruptive potential,l afforded by social media, that I find so spellbinding.
The authors assert ‘social media must always complement, rather than replace, traditional methods of engaging with individuals and communities.’ And in once sense they are right. To only engage with people in social media spaces would mean excluding many. But that sentence also illuminates a conceptualisation of social media as an ‘add on’ to what already exists. It is one more thing to do.
This is where I think institutions might miss an opportunity. The distributed networks, the amplification, the conversations and relationships afforded by social media have radical potential. If institutions merely seek to appropriate them as additional channels then that opportunity missed.
Where does power in social media spaces lie?
The authors advise the reader to seek out relevant online communities: ‘the moderators or administrators of these groups can often assist in disseminating information, thus providing more opportunities for engagement and feedback.’ Yes they may do. But what about building relationships, gaining trust, giving rather than taking? Institutions will need to invest time and energy to be in a position to ask for this sort of help. And shouldn’t institutions be asking online communities what help they can offer rather than the other way round?
The document is correct in asserting that social media can: ‘create a powerful word-of-mouth ripple effect’ but I would assert this is only if you have the trust and relationships in place. Not only does this take time and commitment, it isn’t an easy thing for an institution to achieve.
Just an add on?
Both private and public sector institutions are beginning to realise that the option to ignore social media is dwindling with every new smart phone leaving Carphone Warehouse in the grip of a new owner. Many are furiously working out how to add social media to their existing communication channels. But how many are appreciating and realising the potential to create new types of relationships, which might just have transformative potential? I’m not sure I know any but I’d love to hear from you if you do.