Is there a danger in relying on social media for internal communication?

Posted by Domna in Uncategorised on 24th June 2011 | be the first to Comment »

Social media, many communicators argue, are the future of organisational communication. They are democratic and pluralistic, not top down and dominated by ‘management speak’. They connect people with common interests, build communities and enhance dialogue across borders, real and virtual.

But listening to Eli Paliser talk about what he calls “the danger of the internet filter bubble”, I could not help but question whether we’ve got it right. Paliser’s case – eloquently made in his recent book, TED talk and various interviews, including a couple on the BBC this week – is that instead of empowering us to access information and connecting us to others, the intranet is increasingly limiting our access to people and information and distorting our view of the world.

Social networking websites such as Facebook and search engines like Google are at the forefront of this, he claims, through their use of sophisticated algorithms which track our use of the web and decide on past history how to filter information and connections for us. The result is that even when we think we are in control of what or who we are searching for, it is the sites that actually decide on our behalf.

Communicators can argue that this is no more than good old fashioned audience
segmentation: you get to know what your audience likes and give them more of the same. What’s wrong with that? Paliser’s argument is that, if all we ever get when we search for information or people to connect with is what we tend to like and none of what we find different, dangerous, outrageous, or surprising then real dialogue between individuals and groups is compromised. What you end up having instead is groups of individuals living in parallel bubbles, separate universes, increasingly reinforced and sustained by internet algorithms.

Paliser illustrates this point by showing the results of a search for ‘Egypt’ he asked several of his friends to conduct simultaneously. The returns were significantly different (tailored to his friends’ preferences and past history) and at least one of his friends did not get any information about the recent uprisings despite the topical nature of that information!

If, as Paliser argues, social media and the internet are limiting our access to information and true dialogue rather than enhancing it, what are the implications for introducing social media inside organisations? Is there a danger that instead of introducing real dialogue we end up with strengthening silos? Instead of enabling the creativity that comes from sharing different viewpoints we reinforce group think? Instead of shaping a pluralistic enabling culture we drive the fragmentation of culture?

While I am not convinced that this is necessarily the case, I believe that we must consider the possibility that social media could present a danger as much as an opportunity for the future of internal communication. How practitioners deal with this tension is going to be pivotal to real communication improvements in the workplace of the future.