The People versus The Institution – who wins?

The People versus The Institution – who wins?
image courtesty of

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What is the relationship between day-to-day practices by ordinary people in social media spaces and institutions? By institutions I mean structures of social order governing behaviours of sets of individuals in a community – in this instance, an NHS Trust or a professional body in healthcare. I’ve been mulling this over for some time…

Remember when it was like the wild-west?

When I first started my PhD research, a little under three years ago, I had become intrigued by everyday conversations in the blogosphere and on Twitter, which were either implicitly or explicitly contesting the dominant narratives of institutions.  There seemed to me to be a heady mix of people accessing mental health services and working in them (usually but not always anonymous) having conversations with a very different quality than those I was used to experiencing within the parameters of professional or institutional discourses. These seemed to me to be often bold, public conversations that challenged the status quo and at times felt wild and risky and exhilarating.

The institution re-asserts itself

During those three years I’ve noticed professional practices tiptoeing quietly but assuredly from the boardroom and the ward into social media spaces. This is exemplified by the plethora of guidance on use of social media for pretty much any professional group in the health sector. They are often defensively focused with a tendency to emphasise professionalism and boundaries over the affordances of public conversation to positively disrupt received relationships and effect change.

I recall when I set up my blog in 2012 a colleague asked me how on earth I’d managed to get approval from my organisation.  How much has changed in the space of a few years – social media platforms are increasingly integrated into day-to-day life for many of us.  The phenomenally successful @wenurses chats even made it in to the Francis Report as an exemplary example of continuing professional development. As I write this post, the Health Service Journal and the Nursing Times have jointly published a list of social media pioneers and NHS Employers launched a social media toolkit earlier this year. Social media are no longer at the margins – they are increasingly part of conventional professional and institutional practices.

Is the institution, with its boundaries and its rules, crowding what are essentially people-orientated spaces, and to what extent does this qualitatively influence dialogue within them? Or is this acceptance by institutions to be welcomed? Organisations are in a double bind – they need to be in those spaces to know what people are saying about them and respond accordingly, but they find it tricky to find their stride in the maelstrom of conversation racing through Twitter timelines.

How is this affecting day-to-day practices?

Professionals using social media platforms in relation to their work are pushing themselves to the very boundaries of the institution by opening up their conversations to the public gaze and even inviting the public to comment and contribute. @markoneinfour has spoken about the notion of ‘public professionals’ and you can read what he has to say here.

But is this visibility resulting in more circumspect and guarded conversations? My research interviews suggest that for some working in services there is an increased awareness of the institution with its parameters and controls, which leads to self-editing and more cautious behaviours, for fear of reprimand. However, on the odd occasion when a public sector organisation has decided to put its corporate foot down it has invariably come of worst in reputational terms – see this post as an example. It’s not straight forward.

So who wins?

This isn’t about winners and losers, but there is a tension between informal social practices and professional practices and institutional practices. Most of the time they rub up against each other with barely a graze of the shoulders, but then sometimes they spectacularly bump up against each other. Even when there is a clash my sense is that all the institution has to do is sit tight, hold its nerve and order is restored quickly enough. Is our enthusiasm for the potential of practices in social media spaces to challenge some of the more undesirable aspects of institutions over played?

The institution does have a tendency to reassert itself, appropriate and contain but probably this is more complex and less straightforward in a world where the public gaze is always there.

Where is this heading?

So where is this heading – revolution within the institution or appropriation by the institution? Or something else? These are only half formed thoughts and I’d love to hear your views and experiences.

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  1. The institution dominates and until people are allowed to be free thinking human beings with their own morals and values it always will. The communication I see on social networks is not dissimilar to that meaningless drudge which pervades day to day life. Its rare to see any professional really listen and connect with those using services on social media and from my perspective many from the institution leave an evidence trail of their inability to listen or engage, a political defensiveness & an ego driven need to be followed, congratulated and spin a reality that is an institutional construct that suppresses any real emotionally intelligent communication. The people on social media that are seen as social connected trail blazers pushing boundaries really aren’t very often viewed as such by anyone other than their peers. I thought when I followed people on twitter id feel more connected and informed but instead endless pictures of congratulatory cupcakes (how much does this indulgence cost?!) and the superficial appreciation of colleagues that dominate really don’t feel inclusive, radical or meaningful so far. Im new to twitter and am happy to be proved wrong but I currently fee like the little boy shouting – “The emperor has no clothes on!”

    • Thank you so much for this comment! very challenging and thought provoking. Will respond properly when I’ve had a chance to reflect on your points 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment Catherine and apologise for taking so long to properly respond. I think what your alluding to is institutional and professionalised practices being replicated from the institution into social media spaces. I think this is an important tension you describe. I wonder to what extent the ratio of general superficial conversation to deep emotionally intelligent conversation (as you describe it) is different in online and offline spaces. I don’t know the answer but I guess it isn’t that dissimilar. I would challenge your assertion about professionals and people accessing services – in my interviews both people accessing services and people providing services have talked to me about how they feel they have increased empathy and understanding through connections they have made on social media channels with each other. So those channels do afford the opportunity and potential for real engagement but whether we chose to take them is a different matter perhaps.


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