Barcamp Scotland: the social in social media

This is the second Barcamp Scotland I have been to – I went last year, as well. Although it was the same format, they actually felt like quite different events – this year seemed less technical, with more discussion, which may not have benefited the organisers so much – the event was sponsored by 4ip, the innovation arm of Channel 4, and Informatics Ventures, an arm of Edinburgh University.

The difference may just reflect that I knew more about what I was doing and what I wanted to get from the day, or perhaps with the spread of social media, BarCamp was attracting a broader spectrum of people – included those that were interested in the effects of new media as well as the technology itself.

There seemed to be a theme for the day: the social in social media. The discussions I went to were about the effect of social media in organisations and culture. It was an interesting day.

Social Networks in Businesses

The first discussion I went to was led by Ray MacSweeney of Zamsana, talking about using social media in businesses. There is a lot of talk at the moment about businesses using social media as a tool, both internally and externally; Ray reckoned that the effectiveness of implementing internal social networks would depend on the existing corporate culture, and how they currently utilise internal networks. He believed there were three different cultures of networking in large organisations:

  • extensive networks throughout the organisation, sanctioned and organised by the organisation, where being an active member of the network was clearly part of the job, and involvement in the network was rewarded; Ray thought BP typified this kind of organisation, with functional networks active globally and independent of location
  • weaker networks limited to specific functions but where others functions depend on local knowledge and experience; Ray suggested that Procter & Gamble fitted this bill: their research departments require knowledge sharing, but other networks are limited, since the company gives each country more or less free rein to promote particular products suited to local, qyuickly changing conditions
  • organisations which have a strong culture of individuality and where teamwork isn’t rewarded – such as banks; under these circumstances, Ray thought trying to introduce internal social networks was bound to fail.

In essence, where the organisations already leverages the networks that form, instigating a more formal set of processes using social media tools is likely to work – but the tools need to facilitate the exisiting networks, not be implemented in the hope that networks will flourish in their wake.

I am not sure if the situation is so clear cut. Even organisations that promote a culture of individuality such as banks have strong informal networks – it is just that they work outside the formal structures of the enterprise. Ray talked about how PwC had brought in knowledge management on top of a culture of individual incentivisation: it needed a lot of work and money, with a fulltime team promoting and managing the knowledge management network – which, with that investment, flourished.

With so many people using networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter in their personal lives, people are likely to use them in their work lives, too – indeed, my guess is that organisations won’t be able manage the use of these tools: employees have them on their mobile phones, and they’ll use them whether their employer wants them to or not. Harnessing these tools within existing formal or informal networks – giving corporate sanction to what employees will be doing anyway (and thereby maintaining some form of influence over the way these tools are used) seems to make sense.

The thing is, in organsiations with risk averse, centralised control systems (as banks traditionally have – indeed, still have – it’s just that the risks they thought they were managing were misunderstood and mispriced) – these tools will appear very counter-cultural: they will be allowing employees to work in ways which give them greater freedom, and will require increasing decentralisation. But locking down such networking tools in organisations might restrict these organisations form developing – indeed, if the Government and regulators fell they need to manage the banks’ cultures, maybe they should do so through formal and informal networks?

Social Media and Culture: managing the change from physical to digital

The second discussion built on some of these ideas: how to manage a culture change from the physical to the digital. The presenter works in a service organisation going through just such a change (and so I’m going to keep them anonymous – just in case!), and the customer expectations were changing; but many of the staff didn’t see the need to change – they wanted to do what they had always done, meeting the physical needs of their customers and not willing to engage in he increasingly important provision of online materials and interactions.

In some respects, this is an organisation requiring a classic “change management” intervention, managing the change through a series of change processes so that the staff see the need to change and work with it rather than against it. Both staff and management would need to give up some of their authority and control – the staff currently see themselves as the gatekeepers of knowledge. The purposes of the organisation – its mission, perhaps – need to be rephrased, to give the staff a new vision, a new concept of what their work actually entails.

Second Life – is it a waste of time?

The third talk I went to was the only demonstration of a technology – though it was a pretty big technology. Pauline Randall had given her talk a provocative title, and she was trying to be controversial. She clearly believes Second Life is not a waste of time, although to be honest I wasn’t wholly convinced.

She walked us through her development in Second Life, where her business designs sites and interventions for other organsiations. It seemed a fascinating place – there was a lot to explore – and it looked great. Pauline explained that despite the media image of Second Life revolving around gambling and sex, it provided extensive facilities for organisations to conduct business in cyberspace. For instance, she described global conferences and training interventions she had helped organise for clients within Second Life. There was also a discussion of how retailers could harness Second Life to promote their offline activities.

I didn’t really get it. I couldn’t – and still can’t – see the “killer app” that one can only do in Second Life. People were talking about their experiences in Second Life, but there didn’t seem to be anything that one could do there that couldn’t be done more easily in straight-forward websites. It is possible that it is the “closed” nature of Second Life that is blinding me to its advantages – like early web developments, Second Life is a closed environment. One can hold online conferences, online learning interventions, online retailing – all of that is already out there, easily accessible without needing an induction process. I don’t see why I would need Second Life. (A caveat: a year ago – two months ago, even – I didn’t see the need for Twitter, either; so it is entirely possible that this view of Second Life could radically change! I’ll let you know…)

[I led a discussion about the meaning of community – online and off – but I think I shall try to work that into a fullblown post of its own, so I won’t go into any detail here.]

Managing Multiple Online Identities

In the last discussion of the day, Kate Ho talked about issues relating to managing online identity. You can read see her slides here. Offline, we all have different identities at different times – who we are at work is different to who we are at home, and we may show different aspects of our personalities with different groups of friends (some are interested in music, others in football…) – and we move seamlessly from one to the other without even thinking about it. But online, managing different identities in different forums can be complicated. (Someone in the audience said perhaps we should use the word “persona”, since multiple identities sounds a lot like a psychological problem!)

We can chose to show different aspects of ourselves, using, say, LinkedIn for professional relationships, Facebook for social relationships, and Twitter for short, sharp interactions. But then it get complicated: colleagues might want to be friends on Facebook; connections on Twitter might become offline friends; employers might trawl the internet looking for evidence to support their hiring decisions; former lovers might post incriminating photographs; and imposters can pretend to be you anywhere online.

Offline, we are able to cope with these issues – a drunken night out with colleagues is quickly forgotten. But the internet has a long memory: once out there, information lasts effectively forever (or until your ISP goes bust!). Someone in the audience posited that anything older than six years was likely to be ignored – but that cannot be controlled. And we cannot plan our audience online – that is of course one of its attractions, but it also means that we never know who is looking at our data.

In some fora it is possible to ring-fence content – the blogging platform LiveJournal allows one to create posts for a specific group of fellow users, for instance – but then this still causes problems in deciding who is in- or out-group.

There is a spectrum of openness, from closed (members only) to fully open (such as Twitter); there is a spectrum of audiences, too, from offline friends (closed-ish) to completely public, and another spectrum of audiences – from closed (such as – well, personal photographs) to open (blogging as journalism, for instance). These spectra intersect, and those inlvolved in social media probably chose where to be in each instance. This could of course lead to further specialisation and fragmentation.

Different media have different forms of etiquette, too: the norms of behaviour (the early development of online cultures, perhaps). [Amy Palko has an interesting post on the etiquette in Twitter – tweetiquette, if you like – and the way people react to it.]

Someone else said that actually this issue would simply disappear – that we would evolve into an always on, transparent society – where there was so much information available on everybody that no one would bother about it. This is a chilling future in which the lack of privacy provides privacy – like Bentham’s Pantopticon, we would all be under surveillance all the time.

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2 thoughts on “Barcamp Scotland: the social in social media

  1. Pingback: What I like about Tuttle. (And one thing I don’t…) « Patrick’s Blog

  2. Pingback: Social Media in Enterprises: my take on a broadbased discussion « Patrick’s Blog

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