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business/ organizational communication, collaboration, file sharing, social media

What if McLuhan was wrong?

One of the standing tenets of communication is McLuhan’s statement in 1964 that “the medium is the message.” This is incontrovertibly true for marketing.  Television, as a medium for marketing communication, has become an iconic representation of McLuhan’s message.  Television reinvents itself regularly and shapes the message in ways that have shifted with a rapidly shifting marketplace.  Television marketeers are beginning to learn the concept of “hang-time” so that, as their target market fast-forwards their DVR, the image of their product sticks around long enough in the frame jumps to be seen clearly.

The same can be said for the Web, as we watch pop-up ads come and then go, and now they’re back with countdown hang-times.  The ability of the technology, such as the DVR, to fast-forward or the ability on the Internet to click through the message is also being countered by the other arms of the technology. The media in itself IS the message, as McLuhan stated, and way the communication streams through the media determines the likelihood of the message being seen.  But television, like most marketing media, is a one-way communication.  The fact that I’m yelling at the TV that I hate commercials is not heard by the marketeers or the brand.  The return message is delayed, at best, as I either go buy the product they’re advertising, or I don’t.  The ability to diagnose the return on investment is delayed as well, and available only by analyzing whether a specific ad drives sales up or does not.  Clicking through an ad on the Internet, or clicking past it, on the other hand, is a two-way communication.

When you swivel the panopticon around to look at social media as internal organizational communication, the media as message falters a bit.  I would suggest that, in this instance, we have to move beyond the definition of the technology as the medium, because, for the first time in technological history, the medium is actually the human beings that adopt the programming.  Or, in some cases don’t.

To expand on that–when you’re developing an enterprise social media networking platform, you cannot ignore the fact that human beings are not just part of the equation, but the reason for it.  Advertising has the built-in delay factor for the return communication.  But internal organizational SMNPs are not yet able to withstand the delay.  The three basics of communication are sender-channel-receiver, and both ends of that formula are humans (unlike marketing which is organization-channel-human).

Organizational social networking systems have a tendency to falter at the receiver end.  They define the channel, and attempt to get the sender invested, but the receiver is often defined as the nebulous “them,” or “they.”  If you post something in the community, then the community will read it, right?  But a concerted effort is not taking place to tie individuals to the receiver end.

With the information overload going on, there’s active resistance on the individual’s part to becoming invested in the community, and the only reason that organizations have come up with to invest “them” in the system is access to information.  Businesses can encourage adoption of the community, but the individuals that are needed for any community to exist will simply ignore the SMNP as a venue unless the perceived value of the information becomes important to them as individuals in an information-overloaded environment.

What Facebook did right, and what has turned out to be a huge part of its overall success, was to make the sender define “them.”  People must identify other people as their friends, or they don’t see any communication and they cannot be seen. The perceived value to the individual on an emotional and connective level is is huge.  There’s the status of having umpty-thousand friends, in and of itself.  There’s the anti-status (the iconoclast’s status) for those of us who don’t happen to believe that the person that dies with the most Facebook friends wins.

Businesses that are instituting their own social networking platforms are often pre-defining “them” as communities, or sectional areas within the organization, human resources, marketing, sales, etc., and thereby defining the receiver as a group, rather than an individual.  So they are creating the very silos that they were trying to break down by instituting social media.  There is no cachet in belonging to communities, and in fact, reason to avoid them, as most of  an individual’s daily work isn’t something they want everyone in the community to see.  So only finished pieces get displayed in the community, and it becomes a lot more like your child’s bulletin board in the kindergarten classroom, and just about as effective from an organizational communication standpoint.

What businesses are having a hard time doing is allowing the system to grow organically and make its own connections and communities, much like Facebook did.  Facebook did not happen in five minutes, it took almost five years to truly explode.  But organizations want employees to drop into the segmented universe that they’ve developed for them RIGHT NOW and treat it just like Facebook, but keep it professional, you know, no pictures of you doing that kegstand in college.

First and foremost, businesses who are jumping into the world of social media networking platforms need to slow down and diagnose a return on investment before they do it.  What’s in it for the organization?  There are definable ROIs to be had; they’re not nonexistent, but they do need to be parsed out, and laid out in terms of a roadmap.  Certain lessons can be learned from Facebook–file sharing, much like image sharing in Facebook, needs to be robustly available within the new SMNP, and it needs to be developed in a way that it can be accessed easily, and directly from the communication stream.

There needs to be a certain amount of patience and a lot of the encouragement of the adoption process before the business begins shutting other communication avenues down.  Social media networking is touted as pushing e-mail out of the equation, but I believe that’s a kneejerk response to the sense of e-mail as a pressure-filled stressor.  In its infancy, social media networking platforms NEED e-mail in order to propagate the message that there is value in the SNMP at the individual level.

And most of all, organizations need to realize that the people are the media–people are the sender, the channel and the receiver.  They are the media, in ways that McLuhan could not have foreseen.  So his diagnosis that the medium is the message is not wrong, but in order to take advantage of the social media networking wave of internal communication, you have to redefine the medium as the people, instead of the technology.  People are the message.


About Lisa

Senior Communications Consultant - exploring and blogging about the 2nd generation of business communication - social networking in the professional world. How to keep what's best from first gen communication and attain the best from Business Communication 2.0.


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