The Organizing Power of Social Media

For this week’s class we read a variety of articles; from academic papers to pieces from Vanity Fair and everything in between.  The common thread between these disparate writing forms was the notion of the organizing power of social media.  While this was not the first time I had heard or read about social media being viewed as a change agent in enabling social change, there were a couple items that struck me as unique from a couple of these articles.

What is Occupy Wall Street – Washington Post :  “We are all leaders”… REALLY??

In the WP article, Social media was positioned as an enabler of participatory democracy; a vehicle for allowing a wide variety of voices/themes to unify for a cause, verses promotion of shouting over each other for their own selfish purpose. Further, this alternative media is represented as a virtual welcome mat for any would be causes looking for a means to join forces based on “principles of unity”; anti-authoritarian, anti-discrimination.

Up to the point that this article used the women’s rights movement of an example of a similar and “leaderless protest”, I was hanging with them.  Have they not heard of Gloria Steinem, renowned New York feminist and journalist who was the feminist spokesperson of the 60’s?  What about Carol Hanisch, considered a “radical feminist”, a member of New York’s Redstockings group?  She protested Miss American and certainly represented the women’s rights protests as a leader when she came up with the saying “The Personal is Political”.  We can all have voices… we cannot all be Leaders, just like we can all play in a football game, but that does not mean we are all winners when the clock ticks down to zero.

Social media does make for democratic prioritization of issues.  For me however, whether you are using social media or not, a leader to unify the issues is important, and if the cause is really a cause – a clear leader or set of leaders will emerge.  Social media provides the megaphone to the masses for these leaders, and the lack of a leader results in just a bunch of people shouting in the streets & Tweeting on line to themselves.

 Here Comes Everybody – Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky’s article was based on a sad story forced into the light of day by the organizing power of social media.  With a tone of irony, I say THANK GOD for social media in this case.  In this article, the words that resonated for me were…

Social tools do not create social /collective action, they merely remove the existing obstacles.

The old obstacles highlighted in this article were 1) the locality of information and 2) built in barriers preventing group sharing of information.  The notion that social media takes local information global seemed intuitive to me, but how that “globalness” results in totally re-constructing, the borders of organizations had completely eluded me.  Even more compelling was the idea that this restructuring cannot be contained by the “rules of the local”, because they no longer have any relevance or jurisdiction.  A curious quandary for organization rule makers and for sure – another opportunity for our WebLawyer.

Finally, the barrier breaking nature of social media to increase group sharing seems almost Sci-Fi when you think back to the days of clipping paper articles, making copies, and waiting for US Postal correspondence; frankly, in reflection, I had nearly forgotten just how long that cycle took.  In addition, back then when someone sent you a Xeroxed article on some topic, you always wondered if it was real – or if someone had doctored something up using the copier.  I suppose the same is true for the web and social media– you can make anything up and create WebPages out of thin air in minutes, but now so many people have access to the same set of information that the fakers are found out almost as quickly as they release their bogus info.

The bottom line for social media and the power to organize:  SM is a tool for informing, sharing and growing a cause; it breaks old paradigms but also creates a few new ones.  It is not a panacea but does allow us an opportunity to rethink boundaries of all kinds, including geographic, social, and political ones.

Talking Cats, Teaching Dogs & feeling what it means to be TTT

You all know by now that I love a good title for my posts.  Something that might intrigue you to the point you will actually click, read, and comment on it.  I personally LOL (the old meaning that is – not the new) when I came up with this title, as I thought back to last nights presentation of Internet Culture.  What I learned from class last night was just how little I know about the internet and its culture.  I liken my internet experience to someone who frequents the library, but only reads from the autobiography section of books.  It’s not that autobiographies are bad, there are just so many more books in the library to be flipped through, read, shared and appreciated.  I would never consider being dismissive or even challenging those in the library who like to read self help books, fiction, etc. ; they are not better or worse than those who read biographies – they just have different interests, they are seeking something different from their choice of books, etc.  So, this was a Ahh Haaa moment for me.

While I really don’t get the 4Chan thing, … I am ok with it.  While I am a dog person, who could not appreciate the humor of a cute chubby cat that says funny things in kitty talk? – it’s funny and we all need a good laugh some time – there are REAL are health benefits to laughing! For the more serious side of the internet, flicker, youtube, yammer, etc. these tools offer tangible value to society in terms of collaboration efficiency, mass communication efficiencies, low production costs, etc. and their high usage and massive stored content are the very artifacts proving that.  The bottom line, we are diverse – the internet is a reflection of our combined society – therefore the internet is diverse.  We have so much to learn about it…

In terms of preparation for the class this week, it was so much better than the prior presentation.  Early collaborative brainstorming, direction consensus, self assignment all worked with the help of Google +, without all of the noise created by Twitter.  Twitter could then just be used for confirmations, minor clarifications, and approvals.  There were real benefits of Google + in that everyone had equal voice and the synchronous nature ensured there were no disconnects in our thinking; it was nice also just to see everyone’s face while we were talking.  I realized personally just how much I depended on that F2F channel of communication for understanding.   The downside of Google + and Google docs is that they are still working out a lot of kinks.  The help blogs say it all – and I am one of many that can’t seem to overcome the microphone/voice  issue; it is not an isolated case per the blog/comment logs.  Hopes are they will have it fixed BEFORE the end of the semester.  While it is good to see everyone and hear everyone – having to IM in place of talking is really cumbersome and takes away the synchronization value of the tool for me a bit.  Also, Google docs doesn’t always covert powerpoints cleanly to their format; it occasionally black screens slides with effects in them and or whacks the formatting, so that resulted in some awkward moments as we shifted from presentation to presentation.  Trivial in the realm of things, but a bit of a barrier for creating a fully collaborative presentation.

Finally, the “Back-channeling” (BC) that we did last night in class (thank you Hanjun for giving me the name) was for me exhausting.  I found myself unable to really give all of my attention to the presenter the way I would normally, instead I found myself distracted by the important, inquisitive and funny items everyone was sending by Twitter.  The real time nature of the BC discussion made it relevant, but it seemed to take something away from the presenter I thought.  Perhaps BC it is something that is an acquired art form like pacing yourself in a marathon; you won’t get it the first time you go running, but with experience – you choose your sprints wisely.

I am sure the time of the class didn’t help, but with all that information coming to you from all directions – it left me to invent a new “word” for our internet language dictionary TTT – To Tired to Tweet.  In the end, I learned so much last night… but for sure, I am going on a tweeting fast today after a TB (tweet binge) last night!

Finding Tweet-able Buddies

I must confess, this weeks post takes me a bit out of my comfort zone.  Tweeting to complete strangers honestly has a physical effect on me (not in a good way).  That said, I have found that finding interesting folks to “listen to” is becoming a bit more comfortable, albeit a bit of an art form.

My efforts to find people to follow in Twitter normally revolve around reading an interesting BLOG OR ARTICLE.  I have to say that until this class, I really paid little attention to the twitter and Facebook icons at the bottom of each article or post.  Now when I read something I find interesting, I automatically go there.  The thought is if they say something interesting in the news or on a blog, maybe they are saying something interesting on Twitter.

While this isn’t always the case, I have found that they are often sending links to additional information, conferences or other books/articles that ARE interesting, and so it becomes a bit of a bunny hole; You begin with them, but the journey there after has a lot of twists and turns along the way.  Along that path, you “meet” people you would have never found on your own, and hopefully – they prove to be someone interesting and Tweet-able.

Meet our new team member – her name is Twitter

It was more than just a little ironic that the week that we were assigned the group presentation activity via Twitter, I was teaching teaming to our freshmen engineering students.  Each of us in our class have far more team experience than most of my students, yet when placed in the unfamiliar landscape of using Twitter as a collaboration tool to build a presentation, many of us were reduced to mere babes in the woods.  In my teaming class, I spend a LOT of time stressing the importance of a few but essential elements of an effective team: 

1) Establishing a code of cooperation (COC)

2) Assigning responsibilities for the deliverable

3) Understanding/leveraging the inherent strengths of the individual in guiding team behavior

4) Communicate, communicate, communicate

 In reflection, I have thought about how the use of Twitter fits into these fundamental principles of an effective team, let me share…

COCThe very essence of Twitter seems to be oriented toward a code of cooperation of “when I have something to say – you, as my follower will hear to me”.  Observing the “real” twitter users, I see this behavior played out in their frequent observations put on record, and their followers making thoughtful -albeit 140 character long replies in near real time.  A subtle aspect of this COC is the difference between hearing and listening to someone.  I can hear someone without listening to them.  In either case, the game of Twitter requires you be IN THE GAME – no side-liners; you can only WIN THE GAME if you are carefully listening and replying to the tweets of your teammates, not just hearing them.  Learning Twitter as an application, getting comfortable with it, learning the sometimes cryptic and compressed language, and finding a way to access it in a timely fashion were all observed barriers to Twitter facilitating the teaming/presentation building processTwitter can be a benefit to effective teams by its very nature to facilitate rule #4, but as stated, you must be present to win.

Assigning responsibilities – This step seems straightforward (and really should have been for us), but for the synchronous nature of Twitter, and participant violation of rule #1 in Twitter space (Be in the game; Listen, don’t hear).  Everyone had the right idea – carve out a part of the presentation agenda, take responsibility for it and get going.  However problems arose when any one person lost synchronization with the Twitter thread; at that point, we found ourselves walking over the work of others, confused on how to hit the “undo” button and fearful to retreat to the position of doing nothing or waiting to be told what to do.  This again speaks to the culture or code of cooperation within Twitter; if we all have equal say – then who is in charge?  Twitter could have benefited us by using it to send a link to some form of poll where we could have taken a vote on who wanted to do what, then we could have divided the work using the timely replies of everyone.  We could have also used it to send out a simple Doodle scheduler to see when we might have met for a quick organizing meeting, so that we only needed to tweet updates and status thereafter.

Leveraging individual strengths In a team, there can’t be all leaders or all followers, and at some point, we have to own our role in the team.  Those roles change and morph based on the skills and abilities of the individual in the team, and the task.  Below is a table of team roles by Belbin (1981).  Re-reading the Twitter thread, it is easy to see examples of how the team members for the presentation attempted to play the various roles; Chris and Hanjun filled action oriented roles, Geovon demonstrated people oriented roles, Xin, Jing & Quincy all filled thought oriented roles, etc….  The problem was that the speed of Twitter didn’t really allow those roles to mature.  Further, being willing to step up and offer yourself into a role is a very complicated negotiating process that didn’t seem to fit Twitter very well.  Twitter could have been used as Geovon suggested to have some sort of Face-to-Face video conference, in which we could read the body language and interpret more clearly the verbal cues as to what everyone was good and comfortable in doing to benefit the team.

Figure 1: Belbin’s Team Roles1

Action Oriented Roles


Challenges the team to improve.


Puts ideas into action.

Completer Finisher

Ensures thorough, timely completion.

People Oriented Roles


Acts as a chairperson.

Team Worker

Encourages cooperation.

Resource Investigator

Explores outside opportunities.

Thought Oriented Roles


Presents new ideas and approaches.


Analyzes the options.


Provides specialized skills.

CommunicationWell, communicate we did and Geovon’s graph said it all in the final presentation!  However, the graph also showed that we each operated on different schedules (early birds vs. night owls).  This too offered challenges to the necessary synchronization of all parties into the Twitter threads.  Because of Twitter’s speed, if you lost an hour of listening and participating, you may have lost your assignment, role in the team, or even your very direction.  Twitter’s benefit was the real time nature of constant communication (lots-of-data exchange); its drawback was the same – communication with a fire hose.  If we had thought of Twitter not as a tool in the process, but as an additional team member, we would have considered its strengths and weaknesses, and leveraged it appropriately,  – not forcing it to work against its very nature.  If Twitter were a team member she would be our Specialist.

Overall, this was an amazing, immersive, sometimes painful learning experience from which I have mined many golden nuggets.  I have learned first- hand how incentives can motivate change, I have witnessed interesting and complicating team dynamics in the Web 2.0 world, and I have benefitted by testing what I teach about teamwork, and examining closely the paradigms that can arise in the social media space.

Citation: Belbin’s Team Roles Understanding Team Roles to Improve Performance, 1981., accessed 9/8/2011, 10.19pm