People are not logical actors, but highly contradictory, paradoxical creatures.
IT SEEMS LIKE EVERYONE HAS SOME IDEA (OR, MORE LIKELY, SOME FRIEND WITH SOME IDEA) FOR HOW TO USE SOCIAL MEDIA TO SOLVE ALL THEIR BUSINESS, MARKETING AND COMMUNICATION PROBLEMS. It’s as if they’ve read the collected issues of Wired magazine since 1993 and finally “got” that something changed the way people communicate with each other.
They don’t get that social media won’t solve all their problems. It’s not a technique for influencing beliefs and behavior the way traditional media did. If anything, it’s a reinforcement of opposite forces—those that resist this sort of top-down influence. Worse, using social media as a traditional tool of media persuasion will likely backfire on those who try.
This conversation began long before Wired magazine and even the Internet. In fact, it began in earnest in the early 1940s, when Norbert Wiener, a mathematician and early computer scientist, worked on mechanical limbs for crippled war veterans. To control the limb properly, the brain not only needed to communicate with the fingers, the fingers needed to communicate back to the brain. The user needed to know when he was grasping a teacup tight enough to lift it but not tight enough to break it. Wiener realized that the key to making a bionic arm—or any other controlled device—work was through “feedback.”
Feedback allowed the whole field of computer-controlled devices to blossom. And, as it became better understood, feedback explained all sorts of natural phenomena, from the relationship of oceans to rain to the chaotic patterns underlying the stock market. The discovery ultimately led to “systems theory:” Every system features feedback from one part to another.
Systems that once seemed unpredictable were mapped and studied through non-linear equations and chaos math. The weather, the economy, bacteria—which had always seemed so mysterious—actually conformed to the underlying patterns and motions of feedback.
Of course, the Holy Grail goal was to understand human culture itself. The big narratives (communism, capitalism, consumerism and so on) that controlled and predicted choice had already stopped working. Advertisers clung to “brand” and other big myths, but anthropologists (see Gregory Bateson and others) already accepted these concepts as passé. As society got more complex, people seeking to influence its direction—for any reason—understood they would need to adapt.
A whole new generation of social scientists saw in systems theory a new way to understand populations. They dispensed with their theories of Grand Narratives and adopted the new language of chaos math.
But it wasn’t until the emergence of the Internet and, now, social media that these folks gained the tools to measure all the pathways of feedback flowing through culture. Polling and voting and consumer behavior only showed how people related directly to brands and politicians and institutions—but revealed next to nothing about how information and ideas passed from person to person. Social media—all those tweets and re-tweets and Facebook “likes”—finally exposed the communications pathways between people.
By analyzing all this data, social media enthusiasts understand society as a living system. From marketing agencies to political campaigns to government, top-down organizations now look at social media as the new key to understanding how customers, voters or populations think and act.
They’re in for a surprise. While people may engage in systems that are like the chaotic networks of plankton and raindrops, we’re still human. We’re not logical actors, but highly contradictory, paradoxical creatures. Yes, we are biological entities behaving very much like our evolutionary ancestors, but we are also one step removed, engaging through language, symbols and systems of meaning.
In short, human beings don’t participate with one another as single points of feedback in a giant system, but as members of a lumpy, gooey culture. Culture expresses the bottom-up agenda of people trying to create and sustain their values over time. Far from making us more measurable and predictable, social media gives us a new landscape to develop these uniquely human interactions.
They help us to build cultures and connections that resist efforts to make us malleable from above. We become more connected, interdependent and mutually reinforcing. We respond to one another’s feedback rather than that of broadcasters, marketers or propagandists. As a result, our culture—the collectively negotiated vessel for our humanity—grows stronger, more resilient and less vulnerable to external influence.
Ultimately, the social engineers are astonishingly predictable. Inevitably, they grasp at whatever story seems most plausible to them for how to frame and then direct human behavior. By abandoning the “grand narrative” view of humanity and adopting systems theory, they believe they have transcended narrative altogether—when all they have really done is adopted a new story.
This is good news for those of us in the people business, who are building and serving real cultures and directly participating in the creation of tomorrow’s society. We’re the only ones who ever have been. One+
One+ November 2011,
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