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Who’s afraid of social media?

Not the Web Communication Unit of the European Parliament, that's for sure! They're fast-forward and digital oriented, and know what they are doing. That's why, during my one-month study visit, I was surprised to hear the slogan: 'fail often, fail quickly, and fail cheap' around here. Sounds a bit like Madame de Pompadour's "after us, the deluge!", and that's really not the case from what I've seen. Perhaps 'putting the evil first', as we say in Romania, reveals a more general institutional fear of social media that's worth taking a look at.

Photo by Pedro J. Ferreira

Photo by Pedro J. Ferreira

 
How can institutions fail on social media? 
 
At the EuroPCom conference I recently attended, one of the speakers was insisting social media are just tools, and it only depends on each individual or institution how they choose to use it. Well, let me disagree a bit – where else can I share my frustrations if not on a blog :)
 
Social media are not just tools. Sure, you can consider they are, but then you might just lose the whole point of it. Social media set a new communication paradigm, based on sharing and distributing information inside a network that allows (and often demands) instant feedback. Feedback that is, in its turn, discussed and subjected to feedback. 
 
Let me put it differently: you don't control your message on social media. Once it is out there, it is part of the network, it belongs to the community, it can be transformed, and interpreted, and it becomes part of what Kazys Varnelis calls 'network culture' (couldn't help giving a reference there, researcher's habit). It is a result of the interactions that defines communication on social media. 
 
Now, I can understand how that might sound scary for an institution, especially a multinational one, such as the EP. Is it reason to panic? No. Reason for the same institution to be flexible, engaged, and prompt in its responses? Yes. Makes it hard for institution to 'get' social media? Possibly. 
 
But then again, social media is the expression of a reality. 'Getting it', for institutions, means adapting to the changing environment. As far as social media is concerned, change means actively listening to what people are thinking, feeling and talking about on these platforms. It means taking that into account, and responding to it. In fact, the listening part is a generally valuable lesson that does not apply only to social media communication. Institutions should listen to what people say in their daily lives, and not just in polls and during elections. In their daily lives, people are on social media. 
 
But is going where the people are enough? Does that mean, as an institution, you don't have to have a strategy for social media communication? Wrong. If the word "strategy" is too heavy on the brain, let's limit it to purpose. How do you know you've failed when you don't know what you were trying to achieve? Being on social media just because 'everyone is there' means missing the point of why everyone is on social media in the first place. They are there because they interact, exchange and pass on. They seek a response, a reaction. 
 
Let's now go back to the 'failing' slogan. The sure way for an institution to fail on social media is to refuse to engage and respond. All the other so-called failures are just learning by doing. The bump is here: institutions don't yet know how to react and how to deal with what people are saying. But that's not as big a problem as refusing to do it. 
 
Perhaps it is too forward or wishful thinking, but social media can open the way for a genuine transnational communication and interaction between the European citizens and the institutions that work for them, and between citizens of Europe themselves. The last one is already happening. How can institutions join in? Is social media a good place for political engagement?  What role should public communicators play in this equation? 
 
These are questions to keep in mind, but not to fear. Social media are not here to replace anything, they are here to stay. Another speaker at the same conference (I'm very bad with names, but generous with credits) said the moment social media will really become part of our daily lives is the moment we stop talking so much about  it. One step towards that is to stop thinking about how we can fail. Either way, change is gonna come!
 

 

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