What is Social Media, Anyway? (And Why Managers Should Care)


How businesses work with social media is a growing issue, complicated by how quickly social media itself is changing. Managers can benefit by understanding better what social media is — and isn’t



Social Media, Mobile, and Power Loss

OK.  I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of people in central Massachusetts without power due to the recent snowstorm.  Estimates are that it could be until Thursday before we get it back (although I’m hoping this is a case of  underpromise and overdeliver).  Nevertheless, the most valuable source of information remains social media.  Although power is down and traditional Internet connections as well, the trusty smartphone is getting the job done.

  • I found out that my kids school was cancelled first through Twitter, not TV, radio, or traditional Websites.
  • Facebook has allowed my neighborhood to coordinate changes in Trick-or-Treating days.
  • I can monitor the electric company outage map to learn that little to no progress is being made, so I’d better prepare for the long haul.  And I am increasingly irritated by their ineffective communication using social media (yes, I know they are overwhelmed, but repeating 140-character blurbs from their press release is both insincere and simply serves to irritate – they are talking without listening and without communicating meaningful information.)
  • I can blog and monitor my class Twitter feed, even though I may be sitting alone in the dark (wife and kids went to bed early) by candlelight and still able work (semi)productively.
  • Although not technically social media, the iPad has been a godsend, allowing my kids to watch some Phineas and Ferb (battery still has 85% after 5 episodes, awesome).
  • And perhaps most importantly, it allows us to commiserate with neighbors, get wishes of support from people in sunnier climates, and generally stay connected to keep from going crazy.
So, I guess my real observation in this whole debacle (other than it can get really cold without heat) is the real power of decoupling social media from corded devices.  Mobile really takes social media to the next level and allows it much greater power, organizing, and mobilization capabilities than ever before.  While social media is a powerful phenomenon separately from mobile, the two used together is a powerful combination…at least as long as the batteries last.

Connecting the Dots (or Everything I Needed to Know about Social Media I Learned from Church Work)

I’ve been putting off making this blog post for about a week, in efforts to make it perfect.  Perfect ain’t gonna happen, so here’s what I’ve got.

I, like many others, watched Steve Job’s 2005 Stanford Commencement address.  While I don’t disagree with some critiques of the speech, I actually thought it was pretty good (after all, aren’t commencement speeches supposed to be lofty and inspirational, who wants a commencement speech who’s theme is “well, kids, it a long hard slog from here?”).  The part most relevant for me was his recognition that sometimes your life experiences only make sense in hindsight.  As you live your life, apparently disconnected experiences can connect to create some pretty interesting combinations.

Such has been the case with me.  Before I became a Professor at Boston College, I spent 12 years working full-time as an ordained clergy person in the United Methodist Church (actually, I am still ordained, I just work full time as a college professor now).  When I tell people what I used to do professionally, I usually get interesting reactions because on the surface the two careers look so completely different.  The reality is a bit less interesting.  I had always wanted to be an academic, I just ended up finding business to be more interesting and a better academic career.

The unusual bit has been the connection between this past life and my current research emphasis on social media.  I am surprised at how well this previous experience has prepared me to understand this phenomenon and how well the leadership lessons translate.   As I have thought about it more deeply, perhaps it is not particularly surprising.  Churches are non-profit volunteer organizations.  Its members often have a shared vision/ mission, and they want to communicate this vision to others.  But, those members may frequently have very different understandings of what that vision actually means, and they join/participate in the organization for very different reasons.  There are often formal and informal leaders, but those people only have so much control over the organization.  You can’t always pick who you work with, those people are often dysfunctional, but somehow you are often able to make it work into something pretty remarkable.  And, lest we forget, most churches (or the ones I worked in) are primarily social organizations.

Much of what I learned about leading and managing in a church environment translates pretty well into the social media environment, but this environment is very different than most traditional corporations.  As such, I expect that most companies may have difficulties adapting social media for internal knowledge management initiatives, because the capabilities that these tools enable don’t mesh well with most existing corporate cultures.  Management in a church is about inspiration (you aren’t paying most of the people to work), about providing guidance (volunteers don’t have to do what you tell them to), and it is often alot messier and more fluid than most managers are comfortable with.  On the other hand, one often finds that the you can accomplish goals that one never thought possible (because people are following their passion not a paycheck) or that you never thought of at all (because new ideas spring forth from the chaos).  It’s not better or worse than traditional organizations, it’s just different.

So, what does all this mean for social media in traditional organizations?  There is a sense that social media could be ushering in a new and different type of organization never before seen.  On the contrary, I would argue that we’ve seen and experienced they types of social organizations enabled my social media for decades, in not centuries.  In fact, these types of social organizations are  actually much older organizational forms than modern modern corporations are.  Just as social media is re-enabling elements of a pre-modern culture (because it forces people to have a single identity across many different roles and groups, rather than being different people at home, work, and play), so may it also be re-enabling elements of pre-modern organizations.  Organizations choosing to adopt social media within their organizations may not need to reinvent management in this new 2.0 world, it might just need to turn to other sources for insight on how to organize and lead in those “new” organizations social media enables.

One of these days, I’m going to write that article “everything I needed to know about social media I learned from church work” which chronicles these insights in more details.  Until then, however, all you get is this.

Do Employees Have a Right to Use Social Media?

OK.  So, I’m soliciting input on an issue that came up recently in my class on “social media for managers,” regarding a social media policy implemented by a small financial services company.   First, let me say that I am a proponent of company social media policies, as I believe it provides necessary guidelines for employees and actually frees them up to use social media when they understand the do’s and don’ts in their company.  Second, I also recognize that financial services (like healthcare) have some unique regulatory requirements not faced by other companies, so it gets a bit touchier in this industry.

So, here is the policy:

1)   Employees are not to use LinkedIn for any purpose.  If employees are currently using LinkedIn, they must cancel their account.

2)   Employees may use Facebook, but they can be randomly “spot checked” by the designated compliance manager, at which point the employee must login to their Facebook account and allow the manager to look through the contents.

My question is not whether this social media policy is a good idea (I’m a social media professor, after all, my opinions should be obvious), but whether such a policy is actually legal.

I do know that employers actually do own an employee’s email data, and can monitor an employee’s email address as they see fit.  I see the logic here.  The employer owns the computer used by the employees, the servers the email reside on, and the domain address to which the email is sent.  Thus, the employer owns the data.

I also am perfectly fine with a policy that prohibits social media use on company computers and/or company time (at least from a legal perspective, I don’t think it’s a good or even enforceable policy), as the company owns the computers and pays the employee for his or her time so they can set the parameters for these resources.

But, this policy seems to go beyond what the company can legitimately claim control for.  The employer does not own the computers if the employee accesses social media from their personal computer or mobile device, owns neither the servers nor the software that houses the data, and is not paying the employee for their time when not working.

I can see why firms would want to keep employees off LinkedIn, as it is a major source of employees being recruited away.  Nevertheless, LinkedIn also does have other legitimate business purposes and I suspect it will become increasingly influential on employee’s careers.  Yes, companies often fire employees if they find out they are actively looking for a job, but can a company legitimately say that an employee is not allowed to ever have a resume?  That seems like a policy that restricts an employee’s ability to make a living, does the employer guarantee this employee a job for life?  If not, it seems that the employee should at least be allowed to remain professionally active so that when the time does come to leave the company that they can have a viable career.

The Facebook decision seems on even less solid ground to me.  I’m fine with employers being on Facebook, and holding employees accountable for information posted there if/when it affects the workplace (see some examples here and here).  If you friend your boss and then post something derogatory about him/her you should be fired.  But requiring employees to allow the employer to look through the employee’s account seems somewhat overly intrusive.  I’m not sure I see the difference between that and the employer tapping the employee’s phones, looking through personal email accounts, or going to one’s house and reading the employee’s mail.  It seems to go too far.

As I noted earlier, I certainly don’t think this is a good social media policy.  To be fair, I also don’t think the company is trying to be intrusive or evil, but they don’t fully understand social media and are simply trying to what they can to protect themselves from liability.  But, can social media policies actually intrude on an employee’s civil and legal rights? Although I mocked this perspective somewhat in my last post, does an employee have the right to use social media on his or her personal time and personal hardware without involvement from the employer?

I honestly do not know, and I solicit some insight so that I can share it with my class.

Stages of Facebook Grief

I have developed a new theory regarding how users react to changes to the Facebook pattern.  All users go through a series of reactions that follow a predicable pattern.  Editor’s Note: Any similarities with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “Stages of Grief” is entirely intentional (but with apologies).  For details read here .  

Disclaimer:  This is meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, so don’t take it too seriously.

1) Denial – The change in user interface leaves users confused, they first try to figure out how to remedy the problem.  “What the hell?  Why doesn’t Facebook look the way I’ve come to expect?  Something must be wrong with my browser.  Surely there must be a way to make Facebook work the way I’m used to.”

2) Anger – Strong negative reaction that someone changed Facebook without consulting them, often directed at Facebook’s founder.  User mistakes him or herself for a paying customer, or as somehow having a constitutional right to use Facebook the old way.  “How dare they change my interface/privacy settings without consulting me?  Who does Zuckerberg think he is?  That’s it!  This is the last straw, I’m finally canceling my Facebook account.”

3) Bargaining – Facebook employees monitor the subsequent backlash, making a few tweaks to the interface.  Result is that Facebook is perceived as responding to customer concerns, while providing some minor improvement to the service as it was originally conceived.  User feels vindicated about putting Facebook in its place and develops an illusion of control. “We have over 5 million members in our ‘we hate Facebook Timeline group.’ They can’t just change things without consulting us.  We’ll get Facebook back the way we like it.”

4) Depression – Whether or not the user actually cancels his/her account, user soon realizes he/she cannot live without Facebook, at least for the short term.  Has become defacto platform for photo sharing and communication (and they are using the service for free. “Crap, I just realized I don’t have <insert name here>’s new email address.  I can’t wait to my new pictures of <insert event here> with <insert group here>.  Crap, how am I going to do that without Facebook.”

5) Acceptance – User recognizes that perhaps the new changes aren’t that bad and returns to becoming an active user of the site.  Eventually user concedes that the new changes actually creates a better experience. “Boy, I don’t know what I would do without Facebook Newsfeed, it was so difficult to keep up with your friends before.” “Remember when you could only see the most recent information on the old ‘wall,’ Timeline gives me much better information about people and control over my own information.”

How I learned to stop worrying and love Facebook Timeline

I surmise by the lack of large scale, vocal revolution that Facebook has not yet imposed its new profile, Timeline, on all its users yet. I have to admit, I’m sort of excited for the moment when that happens.  I really enjoy all of the furor associated with even the most minor changes to Facebook – and this one’s a doozy.  I’m pretty comfortable with most things social media, and I really don’t mind the vast majority of my personal information being publicly available.  Nevertheless, Facebook Timeline even made me pause for a moment.  It’s an extremely powerful way of navigating all the information you have ever provided to Facebook.  OK, that’s fine, I’ve never put anything up on Facebook that I’m embarrassed about  (trying to follow the rule of thumb not to put anything anywhere in Cyberspace that you wouldn’t want your wife or your boss to see).  I can see students being upset, because 5-6 years is quite alot in the timeline of a young adult.  For me, not so much.

That is, until I realized that “Timeline” goes back to graduate school, college, highschool, and birth.  For now, that space is just empty, since Facebook didn’t exist.  BUT, you will be able to retroactively change the date of pictures AND tag those pictures with your friends.  Thus, any picture ever taken of me in middle school, high school, and college could be associated with my Timeline.  GULP!  Nobody ever told me when I was 13 that my future students would be able to see me with the mullet and the Guadalcanal Diary concert T-shirt (anyone remember them?).  How do I get off this thing?  Further digging into the privacy controls calmed my fear, realizing that I did have sufficient control over this timeline that I could prevent truly embarrassing photos from appearing (mildly embarrassing photos are part of the fun…are you out there Samantha Stewart, I still have our 1987 homecoming picture and I’m not afraid to use it).

Facebook has done a few things right this time, as they they have learned from their past mistakes.  It won’t change the uproar that’s sure to result, but I think it will mitigate the long-term damage.  1) I do believe adequate privacy controls are in place to protect users who want to restrict this feature. 2) They have allowed social media geeks (read: me) to enable this feature ahead of time, explore its strengths and weakness so the mass population can know what’s coming.  3) I really do think it’s a fabulous feature that will enhance the value of Facebook to its users.

Finally, I actually like this presentation better from a privacy standpoint.  Facebook has always had this data.  The transparency created by Timeline makes users more aware of what data it has, allows users to better navigate and control this data, and may lead users to think twice about what data they contribute, knowing it will be on Timeline forever.

Social Media and Higher Education

I think quite alot about social media and higher education.  I’m fairly confident that social media CAN fundamentally transform the higher education model, I’m not quite sure how it will.  I’m not talking just about how social media can change the classroom experience, as I’ve been using wikis, blogs, Twitter, and iClickers in class for quite some time now.  I’m thinking more about how social media might transform universities itself.  Here are some high-level points on these matters.

1) What if alumni are conferred life-long benefits?  Although Facebook has really enabled people to stay in touch with their college friends, what if universities leveraged these tools to create more active alumni networks?  What about providing online access to current classes through social media?  I would suspect this more sustained contact would improve giving and encourage lifelong learning, and the community of all ages would have the common University experience to build upon.

2) Full-time residency becomes only one (premium) option for students.  All face-to-face classes could develop an online component, which is relatively easy using technology like lecture capture.  Students could follow the course along at home, perform many of the same deliverables as students in the classroom, and would actually be tested on what they learned.  They would pay for this service (albeit less than resident students) and could be conferred a different class of degree (e.g an associate degree, one step below bachelor).

3) Classes become more “hybrid” of online vs. offline components.  Many executive MBA programs already do this, meeting for a full day or two at 6 or 8 week intervals.  This keeps the face-to-face aspects of the classroom while supplementing them with a social media component.  Such models would allow universities to maximize their physical space by making more efficient use of it during down times like holidays and summers.  It could also enable a broader range of students, as they may be more willing to travel further distances if they only have to make the trip occasionally.

These are just some high-level ideas.  I think that social media can enhance learning in ways that allow us to rethink whether face-to-face is always the best model for learning.  I do think face-to-face is important, but I also think that there are ways to leverage other aspects of learning that make the best use of face-to-face time and move to more efficient ways of communication when face-to-face is not necessary.  To the degree (pun intended) that universities can think how to bundle their educational services in a way that delivers their intellectual capital to current students, alumni, and perhaps prospective students and find new ways to “attend” universities through the (highly expensive) residency model, the universities, their respective student bodies, and even our society will be strengthened.  I think it was necessary to ration education at a time what co-location was essential for learning.  I’m not so sure that’s true today, and I think that universities need to think of new and creative ways to maximize their key resource – intellectual capital.