Disclaimer: This theory of mine is only mine, and is not the thinking or policy of the US Navy or NATO. Further more, this is only the second time I’ve even mentioned my thoughts below to anyone. I am not Public Affairs trained, and so I am probably very, very wrong in all that I say…
Part One: The Grand Narrative Renaissance.
The writings of those in the business realm dominate what public affairs and social media professionals read in the military. What fortune 500 companies do in social media is looked to as a guide post, with metrics like number of followers becoming the sine qua non of success. Granted, number of likes or followers is a very easy metric to grasp when talking about how successfully a message has been promulgated, and in measuring a return on investment more broadly. But, such base metrics belie the deeper significance of what much of the World is doing by utilizing social media, and the feedback effects from the use of social media.
Any metric gleaned has second and third order effects which cannot be readily verified that are much more significant than what we are able to measure–one has to read between the lines to see the true power of social media. My theory for this importance is that we are moving beyond the post-modern paradigm. This is to say that I agree with the notion that grand narratives cannot be articulated which equally applies to every perception or perspective. However, the sum of all perspectives can add up to an ad-hoc grand-narrative that falls along the lines of demographics, even up to the level of the human condition.
The metrics we have available to us have already been able to hint at this being true. Take a look at what Facebook Stories has put together based on the location and friend data available from Facebook. The infographic they’ve put together has some interesting implications for the divide between geopolitical and societal interactions . The ability for us to freeze a moment in time, per say, and look at the sentiment of over one billion people and obverse the sentiment based on whatever analytical criteria one wishes matters and will have a feedback effect on future opinions, perceptions and, more generally, societies’ self understanding.
We have already seen the first instances of the change brought about by the ‘mass self awareness’ we have of our combined opinions. News aggregation services like the Huffington Post, which reports its news based on what other more precise news sources report is one clear example of us as a society paying attention to the whims, opinions, and beliefs espoused across social media. Such services represent the first steps towards the measuring of the meta-narrative, or societies self-made, ad-hoc grand-narrative.
I use the model of wave-particle duality as a metaphor for how organizations use social media. In my job I have had to give considerable thought to how an organization should use social media. The person sitting behind an organization’s profile is only a single person, but the content they add is on the behalf of an organization much larger than their-self. Perceptually, on observer of an organization’s profile views the content as representing all that the organization is. Though, it is really only one person, typing away, making sure the content is in adherence to policy and the like.
Additionally, organizations are constantly adding content both internally and externally. I view such content creation (as well as a single person maintaining a profile representing a large organization) as a wave function in a larger system. For instance, SHAPE is a part of NATO, in turn NATO is a part of a system of 28 Nations (which is also a part of geopolitics writ large). The job of the person posting content onto a social media page is to take the wave function (NATO–28 Nations–geopolitics) and collapse it down into a particle.
In other words, a single post onto a social media profile does not convey very much, but 100 posts can convey a lot of information. 100 posts stretched over time, takes on a form much like a wave does. Posts over time can convey not just what is explicitly stated, but also something much more broad.
Using social media to convey information from an organization to the public provides a bandwidth of information well beyond what a media spokesperson can provide in the amount of time that can be spent during a press conference. Press conferences rarely consume more than an hour, and the various topics discussed have to compete for that limited time. However, in social media, the only limit to the amount of time spent conveying a message is limited only by attention span, enabling a much greater amount of content to be provided by an organization. The information provided at this time can be viewed as a particle. Any subsequent information provided at a later time is an additional particle, with the sum of these particles being able to be analyzed as a whole–the whole is the wave of information, the narrative created through the use of social media.
Part Three: Reporters are only subject matter experts.
Additionally, social media allows an organization to speak directly with individuals en mass. Previous to social media, the only way to promulgate a message efficiently was to speak to a small group who would then speak to a larger group–this small group being the press. Now that social media exists the media is not as necessary to speak with large groups. The words ‘to’ and ‘with’ are italicized because not only has social media given individuals access to organizations like SHAPE, it has also allowed them to have conversations with SHAPE. The difference between someone being spoken ‘to’ and being a part of a conversation is signficiant. News was one way, with only very motivated individuals doing all that would be required to personally visit an organization in order to speak with it, or by lengthly correspondence.
So, what role does a reporter occupy now that organizations and individuals can easily interact with each other? The role of a subject matter expert. Back during the Joint Warfighter Conference last Spring, I had something of an epiphany. There was a reporter there who was Tweeting statements from a Keynote address. I disagreed with the characterization being given through the reporters Tweets. I came to find out that the reason the characterization seemed off, is that the reporter was new to defense issues. Learning this, I started to view each reporter and news source I valued differently. I came to understand that I liked the reporter because not of the access they might have had, or the way they wrote a story. But, because of the depth of understanding they were able to convey to me through their reporting.
In essence, I have come to view a reporter as a person who has a depth of knowledge concerning the subject they cover that enables them to breakdown a complex topic into a narrative that I am able to understand. To return to my wave-particle metaphor: They are able to make a wave into a particle.
When individuals have access to information and organizations that are of interest to them, what role can a reporter occupy other than being talented enough to explain complex subjects that an individual does not have the time to delve into themselves? Reporters are subject matter experts who have a tallent for cogently explaining complex things–in the a best case, that is.
**This blog is already over 1k words. I will follow up with parts Four, Five and the Conclusion later this week.