Digital & Social Media

When We Talk Social, We Need to Think Much Bigger Than Media

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We use the term “social,” but what does it really mean?

There’s social media, of course, along with social networks, social technologies, social sharing, social analytics, social business and the social era. There’s even invented terms like “socialstructed”—concocted by Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future to describe how new technologies are prompting adaptive social behaviors and radically new types of organizations and services. These new collaborative models range from citizen-created money like BitCoin, to new forms of global education like massive open online courses (MOOCs), to crowdsourced-funding models like Kickstarter, to the $310 billion “sharing” economy with companies like zipcar, AirBnB and RelayRide, powered by the Internet-enabled ability of individuals to rent, lend or share goods instead of buying them.

When we label something social, we’re really talking about a reconfiguration of the economy and society as we have come to know it in the 20th century. We are referring to elements that are nothing less than transformative.

Our old structures, meanwhile, are disintegrating faster than we can produce new ones. In less than 60 years, nearly 87 percent of Fortune 500 companies have gone bankrupt, merged, gone private, or still exist but have fallen from the list. During that time, the average life expectancy of Fortune 500 companies has declined from 75 years to less than 15 years. In the past 25 years, the average tenure of a company in the S&P 500 Index has plummeted to 18 years from 61 years. At the current churn rate, 75 percent of companies in the S&P today will be gone by 2027.

What’s happening here?

We won’t find the answer by gazing at the shiny bubbles thrown off the surface foam by the likes of Vine or Snapchat, but by focusing on the powerful currents flowing more deeply underneath. We talk about “social” as technology-driven trends toward personalization, mass customization, one-to-one, real-time communications, transparency, consumer empowerment, and so on. But really, “social” is a handle we’re using intuitively to try to express the nature of the enormous forces that are reshaping business, government, science and society in ways that we’re only just beginning to understand.

There’s no industry today that isn’t being disrupted by the ability of individuals to do things in new ways by self-organizing through networks. For hundreds of years, our institutions—from business, to government, to religion, to media—have served as hubs through which flowed the control over power and information. But the dominance of these structures is being eroded by the power of self-organizing individuals doing new things in new ways through distributed networks. The distributed network of the Internet serves not only as a metaphor, but also as the model for the future.

The world is becoming connected through vast, ubiquitous networks, and our devices and tools—equipped with sensors and computational power—are becoming “intelligent” through analytics applied to vast amounts of data. The human species is also becoming smarter and more aware, as social analytics enable people to find information quickly, learn from interactions and connections, and influence collective action on a large scale. The growth of open collaborative networks, driven by peer-to-peer collaborative values, enables problems to be solved through the decentralized activity of countless interconnected equals interacting in a manner that mirrors the dynamic of the Internet itself.

But it’s not just the Internet that’s changing everything. There’s a distributed, self-organizing model even bigger than that.

Our understanding of the universe itself is changing, thanks to the new sciences of quantum physics, living systems, chaos theory and epigenetics, among others. In Newtonian science, the world is conceived as a giant machine; we can know its working by focusing on separate parts through the physical senses. New science reveals the world as a vast living organism that self-organizes in systems of relationships that increase capacity through dense webs of connections and interdependencies. It’s an integrated networked whole where order is maintained and enhanced through creative processes of dynamic, continuous change.

Today’s institutions emerged from the 17th-century worldview of Newton and Descartes. They are machine models that call for an engineering mindset to run them. “Social,” in its larger sense, signifies the emergence of a fundamentally different worldview and, inevitably, a new approach to organization and culture and the creative mindset needed to foster them. Mechanistic, controlled thinking is giving way to fluid, design thinking. Closed systems are becoming open systems. Top-down management is yielding to horizontal management. Even capitalism itself is changing and, in fact, must change to reflect “shared values,” say an increasing number of thought leaders like Michael Porter of Harvard University, one of the world’s foremost authorities in traditional business strategy.

“Social” thinking tells us that we cannot succeed if our institutions don’t evolve to become as open, participatory and transparent as the networked world we’re living in. Our institutions need to transform their structures, values and cultures. Hierarchical enterprises built on enforced compartmentalization must become synergistic ventures built on self-organizing systems and interdependent relationships.

Here, we’ve left the idea of “social media” far behind. The disintegrating and re-integrating structures of media consumption and distribution are important. But they’re just a part of the much larger historic change underway. If we’re going to be effective navigators in our organizations, our personal lives, and the world at large, it’s that pattern underneath the surface we need to focus on.