Social Media Changes Everything: An Open Letter to President Obama about Wikileaks

Wikileaks Logo interpreted by KozinetsDear President Obama:

It was really nice when social media was your special friend, wasn’t it? When you had your Facebook page and everyone lauded it, you were the social media President, the social media guy. People saidf you had “cracked the code” on using social media for politics, people wrote books and reports about how you had won the Presidency by “getting” social media when very few people and companies go it, and everything was great.

But now social media is not your special friend any more, is it?

As the major media have been ceaselessly reporting, “a cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, most of them from the past three years, provides an unprecedented look at back-room bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats” (NY Times, Nov 28, Shane and Lehren article).

Social media changes everything.

Social media isn’t just about fan pages, Mr. President. It isn’t just about organizing your supporters. It most certainly isn’t like chain mail, that can just “amplify” a social (“Change”) or campaign (“Vote”) message. Not in the big picture analysis. It isn’t just about marketing. Not really. Where you did get it right, President Obama, and where there is still lots of hope, I believe, is that the key to your campaign’s use of social media-although it has disappointingly dropped off in your years in the Oval Office-is that it was always about Empowerment.

Edelman wrote a nice report about the Obama campaign’s use of social media that hammered home how it used social media to empower its supporters. Here are its principles:

  1. Laddering support through tiers of engagement
  2. Empowering super users
  3. Providing source materials for user-generated content
  4. Going where the people are
  5. Using tools people are familiar with
  6. Ensuring that people can find your content
  7. Mobilizing supporters through mobile devices
  8. Harnessing analytics to constantly improve engagement activities
  9. Building the online operation to scale

Those are good solid marketing lessons, good social media marketing lessons, too. But here’s a new lesson for the books, Mr. President: Empowerment cuts both ways. Wikileaks is doing this, too. And here is another one: social media changes everything.

wikileaks-graphics_1084331a.jpgWhat I mean is that, for you, and for others in power like corporate executives and heads of nonprofit companies, and leaders of all shapes and sizes, social media is like someone coming and peeling a wall from your house and one from your office, replacing them with two panes of glass, setting up deckchairs on your lawn, and inviting everyone to come take turns watching you. The same ability to get into people’s living rooms means they are peering into your living room, too.

You want “Transparency”? In the social media world, you’ve got it. “Control of the message”? Well, that’s a whole other thing.

Here is the dilemma. What Wikileaks did and keeps doing is a major headache and a major embarrassment. You, Hilary, and your State Department staff must be apologizing like jostled Canadians at this point. Maybe it is more than a headache. Almost certainly the site is breaking some laws by “publishing” such private governmental information. Should it be shut down? Crushed like Napster or Pirate Bay (sorry).

wikileaks_censored.gifI don’t think so. What the major press has also picked up is that this gargantuan leak is also an incredible opportunity for anyone to take a peek, as deep a peek as they like, into the way American diplomacy is done. It is a window thrown open onto something that was previously backdoor. And in a real democracy, that is incredibly value, because it spurs examination, self-examination, and real “Change” (remember that word, Mr. President? It used to be your friend, too).

According to Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, the site will release a treasure trove of documents early next year that will show a big US bank engaging in “flagrant violations” and “unethical practices” and trigger all sorts of regulatory examination. And as the finance industry goes, it is no doubt that other industries will follow. A parade of companies will follow, their leaders hung out to dry, naked and vulnerable with their expletives undeleted, their decision-making  and moral stances fully exposed (anyone remember the Ford Pinto? How about the Toyota scandal?)

Social media changes business in more ways that marketing. It is a painful transition. It is going to be wrenching. We are just feeling the first death thrashes of the old, secretive system. But in the long run, truth and consistency are good things.

obama_thinks.jpgMr. President, please be careful as you consider the question of whether to shut Wikileaks down, or limit its ability to reveal.

Let’s be honest. It isn’t like this is the first time you have tried to control social media, President Obama. Most people have already forgotten how you got into a public argument with Joe Anthony, an early supporter of you. Mr. Anthony was advanced enough in social media to start a MySpace page with your name on it, to support your bid to become a candidate for President, before you did. He gathered 130,000 friends for you. You then went straight to the authorities at MySpace and had them turn the page over to your campaign so you could take control of it. Oops. No thank you, no apology, just “that’s mine-I control that.”

 That old school, heavy handed technique did not work. The followers rebelled. It got nasty. It took a real, personal apology and a lot of effort to get people back and on board.

You learned your lesson that time. Please remember it this time. Let the secrets keep flowing until you learn how to manage them. Let the information get out until frontstage and backstage are consistent. Let the people know how you really govern, not just how you say you govern. Please don’t just be a politician. It is clearly not what the people want from you. Learn from the mistakes to lead with inspiring integrity and truly empower.

And let social media change everything.

 

Is Netnography the Greener Marketing Research?

Revelation, Inc., a Portland, Oregon online marketing research company, has a big name that sets some big expectations.  I somehow got on their email list, and they asked if I wanted to see their latest report. It is called “Avoided Carbon Emissions from Online Immersive Research.

Hmmmm. That’s an interesting angle on online research-that it is good for the environment. They take the positioning pretty far, too. They have commissioned a scientific, math and formula filled paper that was prepared by “Fluid Market Strategies” that looks at the question. Fluid  is a Portland based consulting firm that specializes in energy services and sustainability consulting. You can receive it, too, just by inserting your email address into the appropriate box on their site.

Intriguing. The report compares using traditional in-person focus groups and their own online “immersive” research, which sounds like an online panel, similar to the setup that CommuniSpace has. (Revelation, please reveal the correct answer to me if I am wrong).

They went to some trouble to rigorously estimate the greenhouse gas (or GHG) emissions of the in-person focus group and subtract those from the same research  conducted using their immersive online software approach.

In person, you have things like transporting participants and researchers, using hotel space, using up food and energy moving around. Researcher and client travel accounted for the lion’s share of GHG emissions, 68 percent. With the online method, you have the use of the computer, the servers, the researchers, and participant’s use of energy. A whopping 98 percent of emissions came from the researchers’ use of servers. You can already see the difference.

They found that, with a large focus group (N= 20 participants), the in-person groups create almost 2.5 times as much GHG emissions than the online ones. Per project, they work it out to about one half of a metric ton of CO2 emissions per research project.

 How much is that? It is like:

  • canceling two typical plane trips; 
  • shutting down a typical 10,000 square foot office for one day;
  • or avoiding nine typical business trips (1,100 miles) by car.

Pretty interesting. That is per research project

I see no reason why netnography would be at least as efficient as this, when compared with in-person techniques such as ethnography (researcher travel), surveys (paper use, mail, energy in transportation), or focus groups.

Now, some negations. Of course, picking the number 20 for a focus group is way off. We’re usually talking 8-12 participants in a focus group. And moderators and business people do not always have to travel by air to get where they are going. And some applications (such as using virtual worlds) are very, even ridiculously energy-intensive. So there are some it-depends aspects to the conclusion that online always produces less carbon than offline research. But it is compelling nonetheless.

Think about it-run a major netnography instead of a bank of 20 focus group and you save yourself the carbon of forty plane trips. And, I think, in many cases you probably will end up with different and deeper insights.

Yet another great reason to consider netnography. It’s Green! Or, maybe (cynics, arise….), yet another great excuse for greenwashing…you be the judge.

 

Avatar Thoughts: Dances with Avatars in the Mist

avatar_neytiri.jpgWith the Academy Awards just around the corner, and Avatar up for nine Oscars, I wanted to share some reflections on that motion picture.

I thought that the movie provided a feast of metaphorical food for thought. First, please consider this light spoiler alert. I’m not intentionally revealing secret plot elements, but if you want to see it with completely fresh eyes, you should probably save reading this blog until after you’ve seen the movie.

All right, then…

A lot of people have written about the fairly obvious, low-hanging and perhaps heavy-handed ecological messages in the film (“And so the aliens [that's us] went back to their dying world…”). The story from the film has created a ton of discussion and conflict on the Internet, with accusations that it is racist (the dump blue-skinned savages), it is naïve (um, this is Hollywood), and it is colonialist (see two points above).

My take on it is a little different. I’ve decided to really emphasize the ethnography part of the move. And to analyze a bit of the ethnographic alliance-shifting that is a central part of its plot.

The movie concerns a future military-industrial enterprise’s use of a biological remote-control system to undertake human participant-observation of the Pandora planet’s intelligent tribal inhabitants.

Along with all the other engaging metaphors that it weaves together, I find Avatar to also be an extended meditation not only on colonialism but also on the anthropological practice of ethnography in a capitalist military-industrial culture.

As my friend, Diego Rinallo from Milan’s Bocconi University noted to me after the movie was over “Avatar is all about ethnography.” And so it is.

Among the many other things that it is, Avatar is a science fictional concretization of the anthropologist’s journey. There is an alien–in this case, a literally alien– culture that needs examination. There is a scientific observer, the accidental anthropologist and paraplegic Jake Sully, who must learn the language, rituals, and ways of a new culture. In this case, instead of Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski joining the Trobriand Islanders, it is Sully joining the blue-skinned, animist, and very Native American-seeming Na’vi.

The movie is about identity, interests, loyalties, and change. A major concern is the classic anthropological dilemma of “Going Native.”

This was the same theme, sort of, as Dance with Wolves, and Gorillas in the Mist. There it is, happening again, on the big screen. Amazingly, Sigourney Weaver plays the head ethnographers in both Gorillas and Avatar. She’s our anthropological role model!

The ethnographer is, himself or herself, an avatar of types. This is a theme I explore in a recent poem I submitted to the Journal of Business Research as an extended meditation on introspection and ethnography, a poem that explores this avatar topic of possessing multiple identities and feeling identity conflict.

So this movie inspired some thinking in me about what we do as anthropologists-for-hire.

Why are we doing what we do as corporate ethnographers? Would we work for Exxon? Would we work for a company that wanted to mine the Amazon rain forest? Would we work for banks in poor countries where people might not be able to afford the interest rates?

The film reveals the dark side of the scientific-academic enterprise, and the dark secret that, although knowledge is power, academics sell out their power to the military-industrial system. In this case, science is anthropology, and anthropology offer understanding in order to manipulate and destroy. The Company in this film wanted to learning the cultural ways of the Na’Vi people in order to manipulate them. Does this sound like cultural marketing and applied anthropology to anyone else?

avatar-tank.jpgOf course, in the movie, understanding wasn’t geared towards selling the natives things. Apparently the blue Na’Vi had no need of Coca Cola and blue jeans, they were an anti-consumerist culture. The movie was classic colonialism—get them off of their land, and take it and its resources. Drain it dry. Kill the land and kill a way of life.

One big realization that I had was when Jake Sulley came back from his time with the Na’vi and, at some point, he had to realize his subversion, he had to adjust the flow of information to the flow of interests.

That is, once he had decided to help the Na’vi, the natives, he had to now tell them about the weaknesses or weak points of the human encampment (or, in the movie, to take the literal and powerfully figurative action of smashing the remote viewing lens on the tractor destroyer). This sort of double-agent stuff is classic ethnographic conflict. But I wonder about its wider implication for our daily life.

So, if we are consumer ethnographers working in the public interest, where are our alliances? Do we need to rethink them?

What it could mean is that we need to look at our power-relationships-to the machine world or to a more naturally balanced world– and then think about how we can use the knowledge of one to begin to dismantle the other. This is an activist message that says that only by some sort of rigorous motion that first draws from inside the system, but then punishes that system and opens it up, can there be change. It is a revolutionary, not an evolutionary message. Not what Heath and Potter, or many other environmental activists would see. And climate change seems to offer one justification for that sort of revolutionary movement in a revolutionary Moment.

What does Jake Sulley do? In the story, he finally casts off his human form, as much as he possibly can. That means no more Coca Cola, no more beer, no more blue jeans or even old reruns of movies like Avatar. He’s back in the bush.

What happens to anthropologist Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist? She’s the sacrifice (and, there it is again, Sigourney is the sacrificial mother/boss in Avatar…weird).

What about Kevin Costner’s character, Dunbar, in Dancing with Wolves? He disappears into the wild at the end, presumably sacrificing himself for his Sioux friends. We assume that he is fully realized and integrated into the natural order. He now identifies more closely with “nature” than with the corrupt and destructive American society.

Because the move ends with this eye-opening move, it can not be satisfying. There are too many loose ends. This is a start, a beginning, rather than an ending.

So that’s where the movie offers up only a good tale and an uplifting inspirational message. However, that message is delivered in the most technologically-intensive manner possible. With all of its 3D IMAX computer simulation technology, the movies is of course much closer to being produced by the earth-razing techno-society of the Earth’s future than the arrows-and-fires civilization of the tribal Na’Vi.

I thought that, if this meditation on ethnography-as-industrial-power was a science fiction book, it would have held up extremely well. Its religiously-inspired plot of The Chosen One had much in common with Dune, Hyperion, and even with The Fifth Element and the Matrix, two other brilliant messianic SF movies.

As a parting note, it is also quite worth remarking upon that James Cameron hired USC Prof Paul Frommer to create an entirely new language for the film-something that had not been done since the Klingon language was devised by linguist Marc Okrand in 1984 for the third Star Trek movie.

These two languages, then, are the most recent distinct languages deliberately created by members of our species, and they were crated for remarkably similar reasons. It remains to see if the Na’Vi language will gain a fan community-based life of its own the way that the Klingon language has. I could certainly see this happening if there are sequels, adaptations, conventions, gatherings, and other media fan community activity around the film-something I would personally enjoy see unfolding. As a matter of fact, it seems like this movie is indeed the first in a trilogy. (I had purchased an Empire magazine last year that featured a story about the upcoming blockbuster Avatar; in the story, Cameron was reported to say this was the first of a trilogy; apparently, like Lucas and Star Wars, it had been planned this way all along.)

In the same way that Klingon has become a type of intentional, if not ironic, “ethnicity” according to cultural studies scholar Peter Chvany, that people adopt to explore some of their primitive warrior characteristics, so too could Na’Vi be a way to seek to reclaim some of the productive elements of primitivism that seems vitally missing from our current contemporary culture.

Anyone want to be the first to start their own local Na’Vi fan club? I’ll join. Let’s get blue and wild and talk difficult made-up languages. C’mon. It’ll be fun.

It’s also evident of the continual rise of blue skinned people (often proudly bald) that began with the Blue Man group in Chicago and this year appears to be crescendo-ing with Doctor Manhattan (in the Watchmen movie) and the graceful blue-skinned Na’Vi.

Yep. If there’s no fan club set up by October, I know what I’ll be wearing for Halloween.