For those of us old enough to remember the unfinished American "power to the people" cultural revolution of the late 1960s, there are signs that history is about to repeat itself. The drums have been sounding for months now but they are getting louder and closer. Social media and its most attractive features--mass availability, transparency and free accessibility--are under attack from a powerful coalition of unwilling entrenched interests who have no intention of ceding control of their messages or their bottom lines to crowds, wise or otherwise.
This week's news that ESPN has barred its employees from tweeting without permission and that the U.S. Marine Corps has joined China in banning Twitter (throwing in Facebook and MySpace for good measure) are simply the latest examples of a crackdown by the permanent establishment that has been going on for months at less visible organizations. There will be plenty more to come.
To believers and practitioners of traditional top-down, command-and-control, for-me-to-know-and-you-to-find-out management (which is to say most of the people who run large organizations—even those who talk a good participatory game), Twitter, blogs, and social networking sites are not opportunities but IEDs littered along the road to organizational stability.
And they are not entirely wrong. Coming to the office one morning and discovering that overnight a couple of employees have posted a hilarious video to YouTube of themselves putting boogers in the hamburger patties can't be that much fun. And, let's face it, there is no good business reason for most employees to use Twitter or Facebook on company time.
As much as the dreamers would like to think so, large-scale adoption of the architectures of participation is simply not going happen inside enterprises because that would represent a revolutionary change in organizational dynamics. Giving lots of individuals a voice and audience through a networked platform forces decisionmaking to be more transparent, democratic and consensus-based. In my experience, most leaders do not want to operate their organizations as experiments in democracy so it's not going to happen.
What will happen instead--and is already happening--is that social media will become one more tool in the marketing/pr/communications toolbox. An important tool, but basically one more channel to be "managed" Official Twitterers will be designated and scripted. There will be no Scobles starting unapproved blogs under the radar. A lot of the spontaneity and diversity will disappear.
Like the student protesters of the 60s who left behind their visions of a better world in favor of a law degree and an American Express card, social media idealists will fade into the sunset.
You heard it here first. The revolution will be co-opted.
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