Why Social Business Usually Isn’t Social



Social isn’t an input

The term “social business” is presumptuous. (That’s a good word as I am currently writing this article in a cafe called Presuming Ed).

Social business has, in recent years, split into two, largely unconnected branches. Originally social business referred to businesses that are more conscious of,  and sensitive to their communities and their social impact. It still does. “Social” business also is often a term used in the same room as ESN (Enterprise social networking), and Social Marketing. It is often shortened to “social”. It’s a term that has been taken to heart by the world of social media, internal communication and PR in business. It is this second use of the phrase that this article focuses on.

So, why am I saying it is presumptuous. It is [presumptuous because calling something social doesn’t make it social. That might seem so obvious as not worth mentioning. Yet many social marketing, social media and communications professionals deploy “social” in their businesses as if that is the end of the matter. We are now “doing” and “being” social because we have social platforms in place, because we are championing “social”. This a bit like dumping a load of fruit and vegetables in a room and announcing that everyone in the room us now healthy.

From social to socialising

“Social” in business isn’t an input. Nor is it a product, a platform or an iniative. Social is a quality of interaction. Social is an “emergent property”. We can put eleven players on a soccer pitch but that doesn’t make them a team. Teamwork is an emergent property of how those eleven players play together. How they communicate, how they collaborate and interact. There will be skills, values and attitudes at work, helping “teamwork” to more or less emerge on the pitch. Calling them a team doesn’t make them a team. Teamwork is a noun. It is a word we use to describe the process, after we have observed it. It’s the difference between a “meal” and “eating”. That is a meal. That was a meal. But eating is an ongoing process, in the present.

“Social” isn’t something that is happening. Socialising is what is (or isn’t happening). It is a process.

Now, in a technical sense, you could say that all interaction, of any kind, is “social”. Anything that happens between people, good or bad, is social. Yet the way the term social is used in “social business” or “social marketing” or “social networking” has put a value on social. It seeks the “socialising” to be beneficial, to help the business to meet its aims, to realise goals. “Social” is aimed at creating different kinds of value.

The true value of social

And, that sense, not all “social” will be valuable. The danger lies in presuming that all social is valuable. In a business with certain aims, that isn’t true. Indeed the presumption can harm, even kill the enterprise. Any business that has Tweeted clumsily, or remained silent when it should have engaged, knows that to be true. “Social” in the beneficial sense requires skill and, most of all, it requires awareness, consciousness. Conscious socialisers are responsive, they develop the skill of noticing; they are in a  real-time open state and they ensure that all of their “delivery” of content is responsive, sensitive to what is going on in the social realm around them.

In that sense, “social” becomes dangerous when we treat it as a noun. It becomes the old “send-receive” dynamic in communication when we broadcast (I often called this content vomiting) and then wait for something to happen. Many social media managers, in an effort to kickstart “social” in their businesses, regularly vomit content into their organisations – fake posts, competitions, unneeded tweets, provocations etc. They try to groom “champions” who vomit content on their behalf. n many business cultures, where fear is a dynamic, people collude with the mediocrity and soon the whole of social is a collective vomit-fest. Little of the content actually adds value to the business or creates “social” as a beneficial emergent quality.

How social emerges

Socialising isn’t something you can kick-start. It isn’t an input. It emerges from interaction, collaboration that people freely create and value. You can’t make it happen, though you can create the ground upon which it is more likely to happen. Socialising may be more likely to happen in the digital realm where

– the physical work place encourages it with open plan working, decent cafes and a culture that values openness, honesty and safety to reflect on mistakes and learning 

– access to interaction digitally is easy, secure (when needed) and adaptive to different types of personality and preferred styles of communication

– it improves working processes in ways that tangible add value, improve working life and benefit different stakeholders in the enterprise

Responsive and conscious social business

Why is this? Because most people enjoy socialising. We do it in different ways. Some like the anonymity of some kinds of social networking, others prefer the openness of the group. The danger of fixing “social” as a noun is that platforms aren’t able to allow different kinds of socialising to emerge, to morph and change in real-time. Some people the zone out, detach and even switch off. Others minimise, fake and collude.

One huge and potentially disastrous presumption in the world of social media is the assumption that transparency is the shared utopia. It then creates a fixed default of openness. Privacy becomes a tolerated legal necessity but not a valued dynamic in its own right. People then have to conform to the default. Invariably that creates “antisocial” emergent behaviour. “Social” doesn’t mean “open”. It means beneficial interaction. That will change according to the diversity of people and situations.

So, “social” to be truly “social” needs to support “socialising”, and this has to be responsive, enquiring and conscious. That s the next step for social business, social media and social marketing.


Paul Levy is the Author of Digital Inferno

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Digital Inferno by Paul Levy

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on April 10, 2015, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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