The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEC) in the small municipality of Davos (pop. 11,289) with its picturesque, snow-capped chalets and its world-class ski-resort has always been one of those events which outsiders have considered an opportunity for the powerful and the super-rich to hob-nob and plan how to create opportunities to make more millions.
Items on the agenda usually have to do with agriculture and food security, economic growth and financial systems so when they start this year’s list of subjects for discussion with topics such as "Is capitalism working? Will we grow again? Is the Western model still working?" you know that there is a fundamental shift taking place in the tectonic plates of global power. A shift that’s been caused by a change in society on a global scale, itself brought about by social media.
For the heads of state and the financial elite meeting at the Swiss municipality the concern is that the world has now entered what they readily acknowledge to be:
…the "age of damage", where "social media create a world of radical transparency".
"Whether you are the head of an Arab country, the boss of BP, a misbehaving fashion designer or a footballer," he says, "basically what we are seeing every single day is the power of people to make leaders behave the way they want them to be."
The view espoused by the founder of the summit, Prof Klaus Schwab, sounds like slogans we’ve heard in the Occupy Wall Street movement since the end of last summer: "Capitalism in its current form no longer fits the world around us," which in itself shows the depth of change which social media has brought to our world.
Can We Remake Our World?
Inherent in the answer is the belief that, somehow, we matter. Up until the moment corporate conglomerates like Unilever and PayPal started to feel the sting of social media and entrenched tech companies like Blackberry in the video below, began to fail, many of us thought that if we did matter, it was difficult to make our voice heard. Social media is, obviously, the secret sauce that transforms everything, so the question is why?
Top Ten Social Media Disasters of 2011
The answer, ironically enough, is given by the same people who in years past symbolised the status quo in an entrenched, blinkered and institutionalised world. “Radical transparency” as they called it acts like acid, stripping away layer after layer of hardened institutionalised responses and demanding, instead, a considered approach to communication which, frequently, begins to question the logic underpinning the processes we live by.
We are facing a paradox here. We understand, and value, professionalism, and create processes to make sure that things work the way they should. But we have failed to understand that the processes we create frequently become the work itself so that we end up ticking all the boxes, responding correctly, as we should, and still failing to achieve a goal which makes sense at a personal level.
A classic example of this principle is the evolution of Police Riot Gear from the 60s to our days which appears to have escalated beyond any scope of the threat of violence actually faced by Police forces everywhere.
Breaking the paradox and finding a way out of the impasse requires a one-to-one personal interaction which was not possible until social media came along. The ability to suddenly find others like us and join them in making our voice heard is beginning to have an effect upon the world which stretches from politics (the Arab Spring would have been impossible without social media to help organise it) to science and which, inevitably, encompasses business.
It is exactly because money talks why social media is not going away. Companies love the fact that suddenly they deal with engaged, interested customers who can potentially offer tow of the most fabled of customer traits: loyalty and word-of-mouth publicity by becoming enthusiastic brand ambassadors. The flip side of the coin is that companies also need to drop the BS, stop treating customers like idiots and respond to each one of them as a breathing, thinking human being who has an overriding concern that needs to be addressed.
This means that the adoption of social media and social media practices is only going to grow and this will continue to have a significant effect in the way we relate not just to the companies which we buy goods and services from but also every other company, institution and organisation which depends upon our custom or acceptance to function.
Now We Are All Responsible
I sometimes imagine the chaos that must have been the Athenian Democratic Forum where every citizen could hold forth with his views on how one of the most vibrant cities in the ancient world should be governed. Social media is revolutionary because it puts us in charge. As the recent SOPA debacle so clearly illustrated, we have the ability to sway companies, governments and individuals with the sheer weight of our voice.
This is that Spidey moment when we realise that “With great power, comes great responsibility”. We are, largely, united in our view that the world we live in, a world which, in many ways has been a digital extension of the 20th century, is not really working terribly well. Our governments and institutions are in serious need of overhaul and our guiding philosophies, like Capitalism, are in a state of degeneration.
If we are looking for someone to blame here, we should look upon ourselves. As Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm told Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman that capitalism was concerned only with growth and making profit, not responsibility (You can see his interview here). This is another one of those moments when we realise that Capitalism, as I suggested before, left unchecked, functions as it should, to our detriment.
The time, I would argue, is ripe for human intervention. For the first time in history, everywhere, we have more connectivity than before, the ability to make our voice heard and knowledge at our fingertips. We have no excuses for ignorance, procrastination or uncertainty and if we are worried that our own impassioned views might lead us astray, that we will, somehow, get it wrong, well … it is better to have to live with the regret of the things we have done, than leave this world in regret for our inactions.
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The Social Media Mind: How to Develop Impeccable Social Media Credentials Fast (podcast)
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SOPA The Reasons Behind it and How to Fight it
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