There’s a competitive advantage to being connected: communities form around common interests and needs and the price of membership is always balanced or exceeded by the benefits it brings. In communities, we can produce more, distribute fairly, provide support and care, have strength in numbers and shape the world to suit our needs. Whilst yesterdays communities were anchored in coal mines and sources of minerals, today we have just as many centred on subject matters, common goals and shared needs. Our online communities are many and varied.
For leaders, social engagement is essential: the premise of Social Leadership is that we create meaning, we build reputation and hence authority through our communities. Whilst this socially moderated power does not always replace formal authorities, (although it may fully subvert them), it’s certainly important and may be the difference between success in any given role and failure.
For society, social engagement brings benefits and perils: the benefit, that it’s easier to rally to a cause, be it fracking or immigration, human rights or X Factor. The peril? That we may inadvertently create chasms of opportunity between the ‘haves‘ and ‘have nots‘, separated not only by access to technology, but also by lack of social capital and even freedoms to participate.
So every action to create and share should be accompanied by an awareness of the hidden society, the disenfranchised and voiceless. Social Leadership includes a responsibility to form communities, to reach out and counter the forces that separate and divide.
Socially engaged leaders and workers are pioneering new approaches to ‘working out loud‘, sharing their iterative thought processes and the inner workings of their personal narratives. This approach, within a supportive community, is powerful and rewarding, relieving us of the fear of mistakes and supporting us to emulate all of part of a particular journey. But for the disenfranchised, especially those who are powerless through institutional convention or coercion, culture or law (for example, societies where women are discouraged or forbidden to contribute), such freedoms are a long way off. The gap between the socially engaged free elements of our global society and the socially repressed or disenfranchised may be growing wider.
Social collaborative technology breaks down barriers: geographies no longer divide us, language may not separate us as instantaneous translation comes ever closer, knowledge is no longer hidden away but rather served up to us on smartphones and tablets and parsed into ever more digestible chunks. We no longer need a printing press to make a statement and no longer need a TV station to broadcast it. We are empowered by technology to learn, to form opinions, to craft our stories and share them widely. Or at least we are if we are socially engaged.
In my optimistic moments, i see that this engagement is pervasive and has great momentum: i doubt that even the most oppressive regimes can block access forever, but maybe at a more local level we miss the problems. Within our own organisations, what forces prevent membership? Do we discriminate on grounds of age, of grammar, of department? Do our policies on social media and privacy prevent sharing and the formation of opinions, or encourage it.
Changes in communication technology drive changes in wider society: our ability to form and belong to communities changes how we live and work. These impacts are felt at a micro and macro level. On a personal and local basis, our social relationships are transformed by social networking sites that expand and enhance our ability to maintain a volume of loose social ties, whilst at a macro level our freedoms to challenge authority are enhanced by the ways that ideas permeate and turn viral. Wikileaks would not have happened without a raft of underlying technologies and changes in our relationship with knowledge.
The Social Age is facilitated by technology, but formed on an understanding that engagement will be free and unhindered. Where access is prevented, by convention or law, through coercion or poverty, opportunities are lost and people get left behind.