Why Social Media is not living up to its potential?

What a week! and it is only Wednesday.

When I got started in Social Media I gave myself the title Idealist. I saw a vision of the many wonderful opportunities the open web was going to bring. That was a long time ago. I have been slapped multiple times with a healthy dose of reality. Especially this past week.

The lessons of the week have been very enlightening. In a short time, I found myself explaining the three issues I have with the current state of social media in such a way that I was able to see how these three issues are related and how they are hurting us from truly embracing the opportunities that social media offers.

1. Social Media Has Been Hijacked by Marketing and PR

Social Media was not created to be a channel for marketing and PR. It was created by innovators who desired a way to collaborate with each other. They needed tools and so they created the tools and offered them freely, or mostly free to anyone who wanted a platform for conversation and collaboration. That WAS the dream of social media when I got started. Now the dream is to drive traffic to your website, get word of mouth marketing, make a video go viral, create buzz, and so on and so on.

Need evidence of this? Just look at the latest articles that claim that your social media manager should be under 25. What can a 25-year-old do for you? Well they know the language, they know the tools, and they can spit out your message. But they are not the people making business decisions nor do they have the experience to consult with the company about what business changes need to be made based on conversations that are happening online. No, social media does not have the respect that it deserves yet, so it has been taken over by loudmouths, aggressive salespeople, and spammers which now vastly outnumber the type of innovators, entrepreneurs, and change agents that gave birth to the social web.

2. FEAR!

Jim Collins was wrong, Good is not the enemy of Great, Fear is!

Social Media is still foreign to many communicators. Some fear the technology, some fear the openness, some fear making a mistake, some fear the idea that people get to talk back. This fear can no longer stop them from being a part of social media. It is no longer a choice. Communicators are being directed to have a social media presence, but having a presence does not mean embracing social media. For many, it means outsourcing social media responsibilities to someone else who can be blamed if anything goes wrong. It means using social media channels to do business the same old way, connecting with media outlets and institutions and avoiding any and all contact with individuals. It means doing as little as possible and then pointing out that their social media efforts are not working as well as traditional messaging. Meanwhile, scrappy little start-ups and courageous thought leaders will continue to be disruptive causing more fear and uncertainty among those who are too scared to truly dive in.

3. Left Brain Thinking

My frustration from the beginning has been how often organizations embrace the new technology without considering the new skills and approaches that must come along with the technology. On the flip side, many people I know who develop new technologies believe all they have to do is build a great tool and it will be successful. We have seen enough great tools fail to know this is not true. Look at absolutely every tool that Yahoo! purchased such as Delicious, Upcoming and Flickr. Great technologies that they thought would bring them social media success just because they enabled users to be social. But without ongoing innovation and a nurturing community manager, all of these great tools are disappearing. More recently RIM (Blackberry) purchased two of my favorite tools Gist and Tungle. Guess what…Gist is going, going gone.

Why does this happen? I am currently reading the book, A Whole New Mind, which does a good job explaining how our traditional celebration of left brain thinking (engineering, number crunching, logic, SAT stuff)  is starting to lose some of its spark as we are starting to realize that we have evolved to a point when beauty, empathy, and nurturing communications is required.

That is what social media requires for us to move forward;  a desire to create, collaborate and connect. A desire to nurture our right brain in spite of the logic of our left brain. A desire that is strong enough to overcome fear.

Social Media has empowered many people to live a life that was not possible 10 years ago, myself included. It has also forced people to make changes they were not ready for and caused a lot of anxiety. And as we have all seen it has given power to voices who do not know how to appropriately use such power.

It is a messy, messy place, but it is not going away. I can only hope that we, as the human race, continue to evolve to a place where we can take advantage of the opportunities that were envisioned when these collaborative tools were created.