Several month’s ago I read a fascinating article by John Naughton. He was looking at social media successes – such as Wikipedia and MySpace – and asking the obvious question: who would have thought this would work? When planning to create a new encyclopaedia, you would probably gather together a group of fine and varied minds, set up a structure (to cover everything) and a strict editorial process, then set out a timeline of, what, six years to complete the job? You certainly wouldn’t set up a website and open it up for entries to be posted by anyone and his wife.
Equally, you wouldn’t think that a social network made up, largely, of badly-designed, error-code-displaying personal home-pages would have been such a massive hit. Yet it was. Facebook was hardly much better – as the subsequent bi-annual revamps have proved – and it’s still almost impossible to find certain features (see this exasperated exchange on how to change a Fan page URL), yet 350 million users can’t be wrong. Can they?
No. In social media, popularity is everything. Users = success. Yet the point remains, the greatest social media successes have emerged from a kind of vaguely structured chaos. Twitter is another case in point. Try to describe Twitter to a complete novice and you realise what a mess it is! So, who sees what? And it’s all public? And how do people find you? Back when I was a Product Manager, I once described Twitter was a “broken Groups feature”. I was right – but it’s still a runaway success.
Now that social media is maturing, we’re seeing the social fabric of our interactions stretched. Foursquare, the location-based game, encourages people to share their exact location throughout the day. Thinking back to when people feared to publish their name on the Internet, this is a dramatic shift (and one that’s not without it’s problems, check out www.pleaserobme.com). Similarly, the new chat-to-a-complete-stranger game, ChatRoulette, defies the standard logic of everyday interaction. Try it out. You get to chat with a complete stranger (who you can also see), no strings attached. When you’re bored you don’t have to make excuses: just click “next” and you have a completely new stranger to chat to. If only real life were like that!
But wait, this IS real life. Although, to some extent, social media is seen as a very specific industry that doesn’t have much to do with “proper” business (I was recently pardoned for speaking my mind in a business meeting because I’m a social media “free spirit” ;), I think all businesses can learn from these examples. Each of these social media services has broken new ground in terms of communication: between friends, relatives, colleagues and even complete strangers. Businesses facing failing returns from advertising and internal communication problems during rapid growth would do well to ask why social media works so well.
As Alan Moore says, “there are no straight lines in nature” – and humans are natural beasts. Why restrict us within strict corporate communication channels and boundaries? We’re far more effective (and creative) within an unstructured environment. As recent developments in social media show, if you’re looking for an innovative communication channel, chaos isn’t an option – it’s a pre-requisite.