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The True So-What of Social Media

November 23, 2011

“Social media” is one of those terms that means different things to different people. Some history: it was originally associated with Web 2.0, the Web’s shift from publishing to a platform for the masses to share content and opinions. Then the corporate world caught on that social media wasn’t just for consumers; the term Enterprise 2.0 emerged to take Web 2.0 inside the enterprise, and the phrase social media expanded to include both.

Now with the huge and growing popularity and influence of Facebook, Twitter and, more recently, Google+, common use of “social media” is swinging back to the Web, but with a more limited scope — synonymous with consumer-side social networking.

Dizzy yet?

For some clarity, let’s look at the three ways the phrase social media is used today:

    1. As an umbrella term that covers all uses of the new social technologies — aka social collaboration, community collaboration and social computing. It connotes an online environment established for the purpose of mass collaboration. But it must have a purpose — e.g., Facebook is an online environment for the purpose of interacting with a large number of friends. And new social technologies (such as wikis, blogs, social networks, idea engines, etc.) enable it, although the technology platforms are secondary.


    1. As a term for environments on the Web — aka social Web, collaborative Web, ReadWrite Web and Web 2.0 — referring to social sites open to the general public. This usage gets most of the press, with the 700 million or so users on Facebook, massive Twitter traffic and the huge Web blogosphere. Though it’s becoming standard for large organizations to maintain a marketing communications presence on the major social sites on the Web, this unfortunately can drown out other, more impactful, mass collaboration opportunities.


    1. As a term for environments created by non-Web organizations to enhance collaboration between employees or between a business and its customers, prospects, suppliers, etc. — aka Enterprise 2.0, social business, social enterprise and social organization. It is here where many leading organizations are experiencing truly transformational business value.

In our new book, we focus on number 3: achieving real business value from social media. And one of the first steps on this path is understanding how your enterprise can tap into the power of what we call mass collaboration. We believe that achieving this distinctive kind of collaboration is the true so-what of social media.

Success involves adhering to six core principles:

Participation. Mobilize the masses to contribute. You can’t capture the wisdom of the crowds if the crowds don’t participate. The value comes not from the technology itself but from user participation and the user-generated content this facilitates.

Collective. People must swarm to the effort. They go to the content to contribute their piece to the whole. This act of going to the content to contribute is a fundamental shift in behavior that enables the scale of mass collaboration.

Transparency. Allow the community to validate and organize content. It is not enough to collect contributions. Participants must get to see, use, reuse, augment, validate, critique and rate each other’s contributions. Through this transparency, the community improves content, unifies information, self-governs, self-corrects, evolves, creates emergence and propels its own advancement.

Independence. Independence delivers any time, any place, any member collaboration. This means participants can contribute independent of any other — no matter where they are or whoever else may be posting content at that time; no coordination of collaboration or pre-existing relationship is required.

Persistence. Contributions must endure for scaled value, captured in a persistent state for others to view, share and augment. Members learn from, reference and virally propagate the best content. An innovative idea, a solution to a problem, an astute observation that could otherwise be lost — all gain value when the masses can seize and act on them.

Emergence. Communities self-direct for greater productivity. The behaviors cannot be modeled, designed, optimized or controlled like traditional systems. They emerge over time through the interactions of community members. Emergence is what allows these communities to come up with new ways of working or new solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

These are the pillars of collaborative success. Conversely, a sure path to social media failure is stifling mass collaboration, the main reason so many efforts fizzle out. As we’ve said, the technology itself is not what matters; no social technology is great enough to save efforts that ignore the fundamental principles of mass collaboration.

How does your company use social technologies? Have you been pleased with the results?

Anthony J. Bradley and Mark P. McDonald

Anthony J. Bradley, group vice president, Gartner Research, and Mark P. McDonald, group vice president and Gartner Fellow, Gartner Executive Programs, are co-authors of The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees. You can follow them on Twitter at @BradleyAnthonyJ and @markpmcdonald.

From → Social Media

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