Almost a year ago, Malcolm Gladwell ranted in The New Yorker that social media would never fulfill the potential its most strident advocates envision for it. His point was that most of the activism, whether for social causes or on behalf of brands, was of the low-impact variety.
Click a link.
Vote in our poll.
Donate a dollar.
While what the Twitterati refer to as “slacktivism” is not new (WIN buttons, anyone?), the ready access to social platforms clearly makes it easier than ever to publicly do almost nothing of real value. But that’s not really the point, is it?
Gladwell compared the level of commitment in online communities to the real risk taken by Freedom Riders and sit-in participants in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was, of course, correct that no measure of avatar coloring managed to bring about social change in the Iranian elections. For all of the hashtags and well wishes, the suffering of those affected by the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile or the tsunami in northeastern Japan remain all too real.
But since that writing, we have seen real change effected by engagement in social networks. From the chaos of the Arab Spring to the tragedy of England’s Summer of Rage, real people have taken action influenced by information and engagement on Twitter, Facebook, BlackBerry Messenger and other platforms. Some quoted in the mainstream media have even pointed an accusing finger at the technology for inspiring violence in London. In fairness, it also should be noted that religious groups and entire neighborhoods have used the same channels to organize peaceful responses and cleanup efforts.
Social media interactions—what we call engagement—are a means, not an end. Success in social media per se is not a rational objective for most organizations or for most individuals.
It’s only the ignition point.
The students of the June Rebellion, the Freedom Riders, the crowds in Tahrir Square … none of them organized spontaneously to take action. Each of the events they would help shape sprung from a series of conversations. Had they remained in the coffee shops, taverns and cafés—the social platforms of their days—we would little note what they said or thought. It was only when they took action that they became remarkable.
Which is why it’s not about how many followers or fans or retweets you accumulate, just as it never really was about the number of page views on your website or how many brochures you handed around. It’s about what happens after. Does somebody pick up the phone, try a product, take the appointment, apply for that job or give you an idea for your next product?
But it still begins with a conversation.
And whether that conversation begins with a tweet, a comment thread, a chance meeting at the trade show … or speech in a Boston tavern in 1773 … conversations influence action, and action changes the world.
by Rick Segal
President Worldwide and Chief Practice Officer
Follow Rick on Twitter @MrBtoB
Cross posted at Ignite Something on the Forbes CMO Network