Every day brings some new bit of information — or hype — about social business. If you actively follow the social space, it’s easy to get caught in the never-ending stream. If you don’t, you may find all the talk about social overwhelming. So it’s useful to step back, gain some perspective and see the bigger picture.
And it is a big picture. Communication revolutions like this have happened before, but you have to go back to Gutenberg in 1450 to find one as significant. Before Gutenberg’s printing press, monks laboriously produced written manuscripts and few people could read. The printing press changed all that, ushering in an era of mass communication.
The combination of the Internet, social media, and mobile devices ushers in an era of mass collaboration. These new technologies allow anyone to connect to anyone and everyone, at any time — and there are already signs that the relationships we have with ourselves, with each other, and with our institutions are changing in response.
We are still early in this social revolution, so exactly how these changes play out is yet to be determined. But the general outline is coming into view along six trajectories. As you read each one, ask yourself how well they apply to your organization or work. Your answers will tell you more about where you are in the social revolution than how many likes you have on Facebook or followers on Twitter.
1. Media: From Audience to Community
The first shift relates to media and the evolution of audience to community. For five hundred years, we have lived in a world of broadcast media. We are accustomed to thinking about media as a channel to distribute a message to an audience. But as “one-to-many” becomes “many-to-many,” our audiences become communities. Audiences once passive, anonymous, and isolated are suddenly active, empowered, and connected. You aren’t giving a lecture anymore; you are hosting a dinner party. Your success is determined by how well you connect people together and keep the conversation going.
2. Individuals: From Consumer to Co-Creator
The second shift affects our identities as individuals. With the evolution from passive audiences to active communities, we shift from consumers to creators. In commerce, customers participate in the the quality of services (Yelp), the design of products (Threadless), and even their manufacture (Shapeways). In education, students don’t just consume, but co-create their education in flipped classrooms (Khan Academy, TED-Ed). In government, citizens suggest ideas and participate in the policy process through open government. Social technologies are empowering individuals, enabling them to find their voice and take collective action.
3. Brands: From Push to Pull
The third shift affects brands and the ways they engage customers, employees, and the public. In a social age, people don’t like to be pushed. They don’t need brands to tell them what to buy, where to buy, or when to buy. Their social networks do this for them. It’s why the CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi recently declared that “Marketing is dead.” Furthermore, the fragmentation and cacophony of the social bazaar drowns out even the loudest megaphone. As I’ve written in earlier posts, brands need to learn how to attract people into orbit around their brand by generating social gravity.
4. Organizations: From Hierarchies to Networks
Organizations are also experiencing a shift as employees become more empowered and connected. Formal hierarchies are giving way to informal networks. One of the most fascinating examples of this transformation is the U.S. armed forces over the last decade. After 9/11, the military realized it was now fighting a network of “super-empowered, hyper-connected” individuals. Its leaders recognized that the traditional command-and-control hierarchy would not be smart or fast enough to defeat a networked enemy. It would take a network to defeat a network. As chronicled by Ret. Gen. Stan McChrystal, the military created new doctrine, new training, and new strategies to empower soldiers as not only warriors but nation-builders, and promote information sharing and collaboration around a shared purpose. In the coming years, companies will need to make a similar transformation to serve their own empowered and connected constituencies.
5. Markets: From Products to Platforms
The basis of competitive advantage is shifting from products to platforms. The shift is most notable in the technology arena. Apple’s dominance is due to the success of its platform more than its products. Other companies make an excellent smartphone. But the iPhone is a superior platform for creating a seamless experience through iTunes, the App Store, and now iCloud. Facebook is increasingly a platform for other companies, most notably Zynga, the social gaming company. This same shift is taking place in media (Huffington Post) and financial services (AmEx). Competition is becoming how well you create platforms from which you can (a) bring products to market, (b) grow an ecosystem of partners, and (c) pull key constituencies into orbit.
6. Leadership: From Control to Empower
As with any change, it takes leadership to make these shifts. But the social revolution is calling for a new kind of leadership. It took different skills to manage hierarchies and influence audiences. The new leadership challenge is how to design networks, build platforms, and engage communities. It takes a higher level of authenticity, transparency, and purpose, combined with a commitment to excellence, responsiveness, and performance. What Michael Beer and Russ Eisenstat call Higher Ambition leadership. In the social age, the nature of power shifts from how much you control to how well you empower.
Regardless of what happens to Facebook, these fundamental shifts are happening and will affect every aspect of our lives. It’s useful to keep in mind that Gutenberg’s press led to some very big changes: the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the rise of the nation state (see The Printing Press as an Agent of Change by Elizabeth Eisenstein). Granted, it took 300 years for all these changes to take place. But at the pace things move today, we should be counting in decades rather than centuries.
Originally published in HBR as "Putting Facebook in Perspective"