Clay Shirkey, author of “Here Comes Everybody,” posted this great article in 2008 explaining the phenomenon of social media. It’s not a primer about Facebook or why people should use Linkedin, rather he talks about how traditional media folks still don’t really get it. Sure, they understand that these tools and being in these spaces can help their projects move forward (I don’t think there is an HBO show out there without a blog), but the question in their minds remains: where do people find the time?
Shirkey goes on to talk about television, the great distraction. He said if you then take the creation of something as vast as Wikipedia and look at it as a unit as of 2008, all of the content, edits, pages, and comments crowd-sourced on Wikipedia had taken 100 million thought hours to create. Where do people find the time? The thought hour surplus from watching television in the United States in a single year: 200 Billion thought hours (“that’s 2000 Wikipedia projects per year”). Imagine if we could harness the power of those wasted hours, “unwinding” in front of meaningless stories crafted to capture our attention towards a bit of advertising that most people cut out via TIVO (don’t worry – they’ll still get you via product placement and in-show ads – ever wonder why so many people in movies and on TV have Apple computers?).
It reminds me of an R.A. Lafferty short story that I once read called, “Polity and Customs of the Camiroi,” where a board of education visits a distant advanced civilization called “Camiroi.” In this culture, children are working on advanced nuclear physics and other such topics by the first grade (to any Lafferty devotee who may read this: I’m paraphrasing here, so please don’t roast me if I got the grade level wrong at which kids learn advanced nuclear physics. As I am comfortably typing this in bed, I am too lazy to dig through the book case for my copy of Lafferty to confirm this – if you wish to do so please leave a comment). The point is that this fictional society placed such a value on time that they race their young through trivial lessons such as finger painting, making cute little crafts, and teaching them colors so they can get to really useful knowledge like applied sciences and quantum theory at an early age. They bring to mind what might be possible if we took the 200 billion thought hours in America each year and applied them to problems like solving the energy crisis, space and time travel, and fixing the inability of people to merge properly to avoid unneeded traffic (to solve this last one would mean the true evolution of the human race as a species in the universe).
So how does this apply to community management and social media? After all, it was on a community management message board that I first got the link to the Shirkey article that started this little post. Speaking from my experience, one of the primary things I hear from clients, especially in the legal field, is that to participate in an online community seems time consuming. As most people are paid hourly (lawyers by the minute) they do not know how they can spend time creating content and reacting to other peer created content online. Let’s look at Shirkey again with a dash of David Allen (author of Getting Things Done), focusing on lawyers – perhaps the most time challenged people of all.
Where do you spend most of your time as a lawyer? Is it in research (not if you have a huge team of paralegals), talking on the phone with clients, gathering intelligence, writing, golfing, loafing? I think how specifically you can answer that question (and if you have something like Time Matters software tracking your every move it should be easy) you can then answer the second question: where is your time not being optimally spent? If you could find a better way of doing existing tasks that would free up your to do more high value tasks, that would be valuable to you and your clients. For example, if you needed to find out about a particular issue for something you were writing at the end of the week, putting a key question out there on a message board read by other thought leaders on the issue would enable you to have a conversation about it rather than just looking up the results on a search engine and forming a singular conclusion.
The point is that before something becomes normal to us it seems like a big undertaking. There is no denying that online communities and social media will change the way we do everything. Just like email did for communications, this new way of interacting will find its way into the everyday business of doing business. Just like online legal research enhanced the information presented in law books (some even argue turning them into into glorified paper weights and office decoration), community media will replace solitary search, information gathering, and cold calling. Time will tell whether various professions innovate and integrate social media to their work flows, or remain cautiously on the sideline, accepting it only after many years have gone by bringing something new to weary of.