Belief: Exploring the Landmarks of the Social Age

This is an extract from a chapter i am working on for the ‘Social Age Guidebook’: it concerns the evolution of belief, both in terms of expression, and investment. It’s imperfect work, shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud.

Our second Social Age Landmark is ‘Belief’: we have seen a broad shift both in where ‘belief’ is held, and in the power that it can give us.

Organisations exist in many different ways. One way that they exist is as legal entities, which gives them security and defined power under the system of law. They are also physical entities, which gives them a geographical footprint and connections through proximity to local communities. They exist as networks of influence, through the people they employ directly, and through the supply chain which, through the currency of money, gives them influence and longevity.

But above all of this, and more consequentially in the context of the Social Age, our Organisations exist almost entirely as structures of belief. They exist because we choose to believe that they do.

Almost every decision we make, in relation to a company, or it’s products and services, can be gauged in terms of utility, and belief.

What practical utility do they deliver, and what sense of connection with them do we hold?

Utility can be bought for money, but belief is a thing that must be earned.

A phone may provide utility, but my decision to buy a specific brand will be influenced by belief. A bank may provide utility of banking, but my decision as to which one i use will be partly driven by invested belief.

Our choices of where to work, what to buy, and what to engage with are based on both scales: sometimes we need utility, sometimes we choose to believe. Sometimes we can have both.

We may choose a power company that is socially fair, a technology company that actively works for social justice, a fast food chain that invests in employee welfare.

Sometimes our belief goes even further, beyond actions, to the point where we anthropomorphise an Organisation into something with personality and charisma that we choose to be connected with, and indeed feel good about knowing.

And increasingly, my belief is tied not simply into product and service, but also to the association of an Organisation with it’s hero leader.

Especially true of the emergent trans-national Organisations, the new generation of world powers, it’s often impossible to separate individual from Organisational identity.

Elon Musk is Tesla, Tim Cook is Apple, although also note that these individuals transcend these Organisations and may carry influence (invested belief) beyond one Organisation, and into a broader social movement or cause. For example, i firmly believe that mankind will make it to Mars, but i also believe that it is Musk who will land us there.

Belief is not simply an abstract concept: capitalist markets directly transpose belief into financial value.

When Apple became the first Organisation capitalised at $1 trillion, that valuation was substantially an expression of belief, as indeed was the subsequent loss of almost 25% of that value. Money itself acts as a conduit of belief: i ‘believe’ that the dollar in my pocket has value, and hence it does.

Belief itself is not new, but the mechanisms by which we invest it, and the range of entities in which we invest it in, are.

Historically, we have seen religion as the dominant mode for the investment of belief, but almost certainly the emergent culture and cult of celebrity represents (at least neurologically) a parallel path. Our desire, our need, to believe in something may be one force that drives the 100 million Twitter followers to emerge and somehow anchor themselves to a celebrity. The sheer scale, focus, and power, of social networks of celebrity figures is not something to be too readily dismissed. Belief is power in a very real, possibly the most real, way, and i suspect we are seeing a fundamental transformation.

And the new entities of belief act differently from the old ones: historically, belief was held through the sanctity of power, and separation of space. Almost every single structure of historic belief, and power, separated seniority, from the wider population: parliament chambers, alters, pulpits, churches, shrines, castles, offices, law courts, university libraries, all represent the sanctity of space, and separation of space, correlated to power.

But almost every aspect of the Social Age runs counter to that.

Historically our belief was held in asynchronously narrated stories, whilst many of the current expressions of belief are highly synchronous, and whilst space used to be separated, almost a definition of social media is that it de-sanctifies space. It opens up the private to the public.

So the synchronicity of storytelling has reversed, and the use of space has fractured, but ‘belief’ thrives.

All of this conversation about belief can give us a new lens on power: if Social Leadership is a reputation based form of Authority, then it’s a belief based form. I follow you because i believe in you, something which showed up clearly in the research we carried out in the NHS in Scotland in 2018, where people seem to describe a mechanism of ‘follow-ship’ that is belief based, separately from one that is structurally based within a hierarchy. Or to put it another way, they may follow you as a leader due to your formal role, but they will invest in you as a leader due to your social reputation. Your aggregation of belief. Your authenticity of action.

Leadership in a modern organisation requires both utility and belief.

Investment sits at the heart of this (and not simply the financial investment i referenced earlier). Utility, my functional skills, can be rented for money, but anything extra, arguably including my creativity, innovative potential, and willingness to assign or adopt risk, is a matter of my willing and discretionary investment of belief.

It’s far from certain that any individual will make that investment purely as a factor of where they work.

I may work for an Organisation, but invest my energy elsewhere. Indeed, the ecosystem factors of the Social Age make that second option increasingly likely. The aggregating, and amplifying, features of the Social Age make it ever easier for me to find areas to invest, and to derive pleasure and reward (social reward) from doing so.

So i have a friend who is a Financial Analyst for a bank, but invests herself in a parallel music career. And a friend who is a senior civil servant, who invests herself as an artist. Both entities that they are employed by could benefit from their creativity, but have not created the conditions whereby they have earned the right to have it.

And this is the crux of belief: it’s discretionary investment. Belief, in the Social Age, is hard currency, one that backs the reputation economy, at scale.

But to have it, we must earn it. And when we have it, we must honour it.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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1 Response to Belief: Exploring the Landmarks of the Social Age

  1. Pingback: Leadership: A Matter of Belief? | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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