Social Media and the “Broadcast” problem, and why Engagement is long overdue.

CHARLOTTE.  May 2010.  For the commercial web’s first decade, people communicated the old fashioned way: broadcasting their messages to anyone who would listen. It was a simple, easy extension of traditional advertising, public relations, politics and academic publishing. E-mail, also cutting edge at the time, modeled the same broadcast mentality. It was yet another easy way to lob messages to large audiences.

Prevalence of the “broadcast model” has limited people’s view of how the internet can be used to deliver messages. Many still don’t realize that the new internet offers a radically different proposition: collaborating with others via an open, multi-party exchange.

Engagement is communication at a different level

If communicating via email was passive and routine, the connections possible with engagement are active and dynamic. True engagement is more work. It requires time, energy and active listening. But the resulting flow of information brings rich rewards. Insights begin to accumulate and multiply. Ideas get validated and enhanced in several directions at once. And as the value of the idea exchange increases, personal relationships begin to form around them.

Meaningful, high-value connections like these are at the core of the Twitter chat phenomenon that’s spawned successful, ongoing communities.

And yet engagement rates among the masses remain critically low. Try to talk about social media with the average person, and you can see the resistance in their eyes, as if to say, “I know better, I’ve heard that one before, you can’t fool me.”

That makes building social teams and virtual communities much harder.

Why so much resistance?

I find the old mindset serves as a filter to the possibilities, reinforced by a culture that has grown cynical and distrusting. Unfortunately, those old opinions die hard.

Thought leadership in this space goes back 50 years. Concepts like Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm” (1962), Charles Handy’s “organizational culture” (1976), and Peter Senge’s “mental models” (1990) all build on the theme of the filters we use when we perceive the world around us. It seems we’ve advanced our understanding, but have moved too little to act on what we’ve learned.

The idea of “getting outside the box” was clearly spawned from this line of thinking. Far too many remain safely inside those boxes.

Here’s a key takeaway, unvarnished:

Mental filters (influenced by culture, formal education and our past life experiences) shape how we perceive the world around us, blinding us to new perspectives and blocking us from making deep connections with others.

Can we take this problem on, unlocking engagement in the virtual space? I say yes. Getting past our mental filters may be the first hurdle, but there are more. I’ve posted thoughts on the specifics of meaningful engagement over at Talent Culture.

There’s a world full of complex problems out there. Embracing broad, meaningful collaborative engagement on a much larger scale is critical if we hope to solve them.

14 thoughts on “Social Media and the “Broadcast” problem, and why Engagement is long overdue.

  1. Pingback: The meaning of engagement

  2. True engagement requires a different level of effort and commitment than broadcasting. I agree that the flow of information brings rich rewards.

    As the web moves from pages to streams engagement will become even more valuable and does require communication at a different level.

    An example I use is knowledge stocks (static and organized) vs. knowledge flows (timely and contextual).

    One of the keys of mental filters is to be consciously aware that they are present and understand that they are altering your perception (positive or negative). Realizing that you are not the filters also helps with keeping an open mind and being less resistant.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Dennis, and making the connection to knowledge flows. I have been engaged in a variety of thought streams (see excellent post by Steve Barth) about organizations behaving as “systems” or “organisms” – two different metaphors, or paradigms if you will – that speak to the dynamics of how knowledge is exchanged. Nuances of those differences can be hotly debated, but I think the takeaway is that both ways to frame learning add value, but both also have limitations.

    Stepping back from the debate, I argue the true skill is in not trying to lock-in on a one vs. the other framing, but rather, to become skillful in applying whatever filters we want consciously, when and if they add value.

    Trouble is, most folks don’t realize they even have filters.

    Back on the mechanics of how to engage, the most important first step, to me, is to “de-filter” your thinking, or in other words, to suspend your mental filters completely. Only then can the best of many choices be applied.

    To me, managing your mental filters and paradigms is a fundamental learning skill and core to true engagement. Many don’t get that. So many never truly engage.

  4. Engagement is nothing new of course. And networking is nothing new either. What is new is the social media technology that is bringing down the (mostly geographical, but also cultural) barriers, thus facilitating the networking and engagement as never before. Well, did I say facilitating?

    Ignoring the technology, engagement is about people relationships. And there’s nothing new, nothing that I’ve seen that is facilitating ongoing people relationships. Because it takes attention (active listening skills mentioned above), mutual trust (to be built over time), regularity, valuable content (ideas, opinions) to be exchanged, etc. And because technology is only facilitating the first step, finding each other, getting in touch (again). But the networking itself is hard work. And it’s never been very popular!

    There is no resistance! At least, no more resistance today than before. Networking has always been limited to relatively small, motivated, open minded groups. A century ago, the chambers of commerce and business clubs didn’t attract large crowds either…

    Of course, there are filters, and shifting paradigms would help. With the exception of a few luminaries (early adopters, some would say), people always see today’s world through the filter of yesterday’s paradigm. More importantly, they (continue to) apply yesterday’s paradigms to today’s capabilities. Otherwise, why would email mirror snail mail (with envelopes and addressees and everything)?, why would digital print mirror paper editions?, why would twitter mirror sms?, etc.

    Interestingly, today’s millennials never wrote letters or postcards, never posted envelopes… Tomorrow’s generation may never have seen traditional newspapers… Does it mean that they will not be polluted by the same paradigms? Yes, but… they will still try to apply their day’s paradigms to tomorrow’s capabilities!

    So indeed, mental filters define our perception of the world around us, and keep us from embracing new paradigms. But history has shown that it is easier to leapfrog than to change. E.g., in some developing nations, education is being promoted which goes well beyond our current (western) approaches, and that is possible thanks to the lack of history… When you distribute OLPC laptops in a village where there has never even been a basic school, there is no prevailing paradigm to break!

    Food for thought,


  5. Hi Chris!

    There are a lot of different things to respond to in your post, and I like what others have added both here and on twitter.

    As Christian mentions, engagement is nothing new. You are talking specifically about Web 2.0 engagement – the potential now exists to connect and share with more people from more disparate places than ever before. So why aren’t we doing so?

    Well, many people are engaging via web 2.0, and in interesting ways – Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is full of great stories of how this is unfolding. And it will keep unfolding, as more people discover the ways and means find those they want to engage with.

    For others, it is about access – having the resources (connectivity, devices, speed), authority (many organizations prohibit access via their internal networks), or interest (time spent online is time taken away from other pursuits).

    The last two barriers I just mentioned seem to be most related to your point about mental models – authority at the organizational level, and interest at the individual level.

    In either case, perhaps shift happens slowly at first, and then cascades to where we can’t remember doing things differently. What did change look like as mailboxes were first installed on every doorstep with a system of letter carriers connecting them all? Was a stamp seen as extravagance when it was first introduced? Was it a novelty to conduct business without ever meeting the person opening the envelope? Time allows us to take so much for granted. I think we will get that too with Web 2.0 adoption, and we can neither control nor predict how and when changes occur. I can’t remember my first online transaction , but I know I prefer shopping online for many things now.

    At the organizational level, I think a leader’s role is to ensure that the choices available for engagement contribute to the desired culture. Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com provides a great example of this. He believes that “forming personal, emotional connections with our customers is the best way to provide great service” – so he does what he can to ensure that his employees are happy and ready to engage.

    I think you are concerned about culture change where the commitment to engagement is missing…yes?


  6. Pingback: What is Web 2.0 and Why Should it Change the Way I Do Business? | ISA Marketing & Sales Summit

  7. Hi Mary –

    Great to hear from you again, and thanks so much for your comments .. as insightful (and as engaging) as ever.

    I definitely think the “authority” and “interest” gaps you raise point back to culture, which I’d have to characterize as a “culture of complacency”. Prevalent in our society? People who feel disenfranchised, less than empowered .. w/ classic examples that range from low voter turnout to apathy on core social issues like environment and education.

    Sure, there are some exciting things happening out here in the public domain.

    But not on the scale or at the pace we need.

    Paradigm shifts take time, yes. But I am still searching for ways to step things up. Are the necessary leaders (as Gladwellian mavens, connectors, and/or salesman) getting the messages right? What else can be done?


  8. Excellent perspectives, Christian –

    In terms of resistance, you’re right, it’s no worse than before. But I still get stuck on how bad it’s always been. Inertia due to cultural burn-in (as you say, being trapped in the old paradigms) is one of strongest barriers to social and commercial innovation I can think of.

    And even when change finally starts to build momentum, the old obstacles can reemerge. I love John Kotter’s quote on this:

    “Resistance always waits for a chance to reassert itself.”

    Besides Kotter’s classic “Leading Change” (1996), a great, accessible source on paradigm mechanics is Joel A. Barker’s “Paradigms: the Business of Discovering the Future” (1993). Doesn’t get much press, but it certainly brought Kuhn’s thinking forward a few decades.

    Thanks again for directing me to Peter Senge’s “Fifth Discipline” last fall – it was the perfect build on the paradigm foundation set by Kuhn in the 60’s, and further advanced by Barker.

    Again, I appreciate your insights .. focused, relevant and valuable.


  9. I am thinking about the authority and interest gaps as they apply to large established NPOs. My team and I are pushing our organization to see how real engagement with constituents who support the mission is key to vibrant, long term support. Just getting started on drafting a comprehensive digital strategy, and pleased to come across some many great people and ideas in one place.

    Our authority problem is that our PR group is very old media, or to use Ben Huh’s argument, very Popular Culture and not Internet Culture. They do not want to lose control of the message, and feel they cannot give time to listening and interacting with constituents about the message (or more critically, the mission). White papers, slide decks, long lunches — still a very hard mind set to break.

    The interest gap is deceiving; they are interested, but in the “Business Week” way that does not help. That is, they have seen the term “Web 2.O” mentioned enough times in the Non-Profit press that they “want us to have some of those 2.0 tools, stat.” They are not ready to talk strategy, ecosystem or even infrastructure. They just want a Twitter feed up and running, and fast.

    Still thinking about how all the great ideas I am coming across here and about can be best be applied; am a little jealous of the small NPOs here; they way have less resources, but they can be much more nimble in this space than large NPOs if they choose.

    We are also trying to apply Kotter bottom up (I know, I know, not ideal) holding out the hope that mass will create gravity; that as we integrate more and activities under the mantle of “online”, we will have enough success that folks will unconsciously get pulled through Prochaska’s change process and emerge on the other side thinking that they planned to change their approach to engagement all on their own. Probably a vestige of my background, but my experience leads me to think that unless they own the change at a deeply personal and fundamental level, it will never truly stick.

    Still new to the space and the dialogue, but hope to be able to add more thoughtful comments shortly.

  10. Pingback: E L S U A ~ A KM Blog Thinking Outside The Inbox by Luis Suarez » How to Use Employee Engagement to Boost Your Business

  11. Pingback: Manager Newz » Blog Archive » How to Use Employee Engagement to Boost Your Business

  12. Our city is in the process of developing a “Charter” ; a City Council written policy that, when passed, will giude the increasingly necessary ways to :meaningfully engage” citizens with local government. We are having difficulty defining “meaningful engagement ” in this document that would indicate what citizens can expect from their local government. Do you have any suggestions for this definition? Thanks. John.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks much for reaching out. Yes, I have lots of thoughts on this topic. I think “meaningful engagement” breaks down into a variety of elements. Each must be considered when you are charting a course for community involvement.

      Semantics. Most wave this issue away, but communities often struggle because people are talking past each other. Take the time to define key terms and build common ground.

      Purpose/Objective. What is community trying to accomplish? This needs to be clearly stated, preferably with input from the community, in language that everyone understands and gets behind. This is where the ‘meaning’ comes in, and for the effort to be meaningful, the majority of stakeholders need to agree on target outcomes.

      Intention. At the individual level, how is each person invested in the outcomes? are they consciously communicating that to others? The best way I’ve found to tackle this is to ask. This can also help surface hidden or politically disruptive agendas.

      Focus. Are the community and individual members able to retain focus and energy on the objectives, and not get sidetracked? Strong facilitation is often important here, especially if there are negative energies or political undercurrents to contend with ..

      Engagement. This may be the hardest part of all, because true engagement requires a whole portfolio of communication and interpersonal skills, including trust, respect, active listening, story telling, use of metaphor .. skills that allow people to interact effectively in a group. To simplify this point a bit, engagement does NOT mean showing up. It means doing the hard work of working together to solve problems.

      As it happens, I’m currently engaged with my community in Charlotte in two ways .. speaking with a local group of social entrepreneurs re: collaboration .. and serving as a member of a task force re: culture in education ..

      Of course, I’m sharing my inputs/views there as well, and will post feedback as it comes in .. we’re always learning .. and I’m sure I’ll be updating my perspectives as we go ..

      Thanks so much for asking, John. Best of luck with your community efforts. Let me know how things progress.

      Charlotte, NC
      author, the DNA of Collaboration

      • Hi Chris- many thanks. I’ll send you a copy of the Charter upon Council approval. j.

        Regards, John

        John Searles


        C: (905)-330-6055


        Date: Sun, 27 Jan 2013 16:09:31 +0000
        To: searlesjs@hotmail.com

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