Is social media killing your big idea? Probably.

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Ideas and leadership are mutually inclusive concepts.  Simply put, you can try to lead without original thought, but any success will be short-lived.  And original thought comes from within, not from the masses; in fact, the more divorced an idea is from the norm, the more likely it is to give rise to leadership (for more on this, I recommend multiple viewings of The Hudsucker Proxy…”you know, for kids!”).

A convergence of technology and a generations-long legacy of success in the U.S., however, has put a crimp in that inclusivity.  We have an army of incoming leaders that have been weaned on constant connectivity and rapid dispersion of ideas, but very little indication that our environment is conducive to creating visionaries.  Too many brilliant minds see something online, and pass it along.  They have the inkling of an idea, they post it, and they hope everyone “likes” it.  They take the easy road to acknowledgement and set up camp, satisfied.

Social media isn’t wholly to blame, but this is a marketing blog so we may as well tackle that part of it here.  There have always been detractors and words of caution against the virtual frenzy, generally labeled as grumbling from an old guard resistant to constant connectivity. But the arguments for ratcheting back participation in social media are starting to come together with a little more cohesion.

My qualifier, as with similar posts, is that I engage in social media. Our clients engage in it. My wife, my friends, my sister, and someday my sons. It’s an outstanding channel for maintaining relationships and it’s not going away. However, it is going to change. Soon.

But don’t take my word for it.  Consider three viewpoints that seem to be running in parallel with one another:

Viewpoint one: as heard on NPR’s Here & Now, a conversation with essayist William Deresiewicz about his game-changing lecture on leadership at West Point in 2010. Deresiewicz modestly notes that his views on leadership come from a clearly academic point of view – he is not a military or a corporate leader. He’s a writer and a professor. Despite those origins, his indictment of modern leadership and his distaste for the path that our youth is taught to follow has caught fire; he said in his lecture that:

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going…What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers….Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.  Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

Of course social media is a small part of this issue, but by immersing ourselves in that online culture, we “are marinating in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself.”

Stepping back from that noise allows for greater introspection, self-confidence, and more complete plans.  Some would argue (and do) that the current propensity to be clever and brief for a massive audience – and to be a consumer of clever, brief messages from a massive constituency – is robbing the incoming generation of leaders of the ability to be truly thoughtful.  Sometimes,  Deresiewicz commented in his interview, it takes ten pages to articulate a vision in a complete and thoughtful manner.  We are increasingly dismissive of that process, that talent, and that privilege.

Which brings me to Viewpoint Two: PBS’ Frontline, an investigation into the Digital Nation, also in 2010. Frontline looked at how online interactions are changing the way we think, and in particular how students are learning to communicate. They call themselves brilliant and automatic multi-taskers who can write a term paper while texting with friends, chatting on Facebook, and checking the weather. Unfortunately, the result is a term paper that is written one disconnected thought at a time.  There is little narrative or long-form cohesion, and any introspection is likewise experienced in pieces.

Again, as noted by Deresiewicz, an inability to be a thinker.

The Frontline episode also focused on the positives of constant connectivity, noting that perhaps this is a necessary evolutionary step.  The half-formed thoughts and 140 character bursts of “insight” may be intermediaries to more comprehensive communications skills that can exist in a virtual medium.

Then again, they may not.

Viewpoint three: a CNN piece on a nascent trend of deleted Facebook accounts. CNN pointed out a couple weeks ago that more than 7 million North American Facebook users have opted out. Yes, that’s a scant percentage of the Facebook population – but it’s still a lot of people.  People interviewed for the story said that “constant status updates may inadvertently discourage more meaningful and sensory interactions that can only take place offline.”

When do a couple of similar statements begin to form a movement? I vote that when three major perspectives are posited from three major sources with different versions of the same theory, it’s time to start listening.

Nobody’s saying that social media is about to implode, leaving scattered remnants of Facebook profile pictures scattered across the web. But this is a good time to put your seatback in the upright position and power off your electronic devices – social media may be headed for a brief layover. In the meantime, please feel free to tweet this, post it to Facebook and LinkedIn, and for God’s sake “like” it.  After all, the plane hasn’t touched down quite yet.

And in the spirit of big ideas and perseverance, see below…

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2 Responses to “Is social media killing your big idea? Probably.”

  1. #PRWritingOnTwitter or In Defense of Twitter for Public Relations Writing « Says:

    […] logical argument has been made – social media is creating copy carnage, much to the chagrin of polished Public Relations writers.  Squeezing into the 140-characters-or-lessTwitter format seems to translate important messages […]

  2. #PRWritingOnTwitter or In Defense of Twitter for Public Relations … | The Impact Public Relations Says:

    […] logical argument has been made – social media is creating copy carnage, much to the chagrin of polished Public Relations writers.  Squeezing into the 140-characters-or-less Twitter format seems to translate important messages […]

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