Social media and Mars Bars

19th January 2011 | Posted in Economics, Organisational Development, Social Media

The thinking man’s recruiter, @mervyndinnen chatted with me in the pub about sixties Britain the other evening. We weren’t far from Carnaby Street so it felt right, but his point was about something much more contemporary: social media. The resulting post ‘Boy in a Bubble’ had been Marsbrewing in his head for a while and was sparked by an observation in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of the sixties ‘White Heat’. What Mervyn learned from Sandbrook was a lot of the perceptions we hold now about the period – free love, rock ‘n roll and the re-ordering of stuffy Britain – are based on the experiences of a few hundred people clustered around Mick Jagger. For most ordinary folk at the time, Mars Bars were still for eating from the wrapper and this was not a revolution in the way we now look back on it. Mervyn’s musing was to consider, and reject, the idea that his dealings with social media could be classified in the same way. He wondered whether he was one of a small group of converts whoopin’ and hollerin’ together on Twitter while the rest of the world got on with the real work, oblivious.

It’s to Mervyn’s credit to have the thought. It’s equally to his credit to reject it. Stood on the high ground of history we know the sixties was a time of huge and enduring social change. I take Sandbrook’s point as being that your average working man and, increasingly, woman in 1960’s Britain was doing the same thing in the same way regardless of The Beatles – for example, the goppingly racist ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ was still the most popular show on TV. While that might be right if you measure change minute by minute, it’s not right if you measure it year by year. It seems to me that the current state of social media could be similar to Sandbrook’s view of the sixties: while it might look like there is no change minute to minute, widening the focus shows a different picture. I have two pieces of corroboration from Malcolm Gladwell.

The first is an article published in the New Yorker last October, ‘Small Change’. Here, Gladwell argues that social media ties are weak: Twitter followers are acquaintances rather than family or old beer-buddies from university and therefore the relationship is a less powerful influence on action. He draws a parallel with the civil right movement in sixties America to make his eloquent, but wrong, point. Lots of social media cheerleaders have argued against Gladwell but I think the St. George to his dragon is in the work of another sociologist, Mark Granovetter. Granovetter’s 1970’s work on social networks showed that we have strong ties with people in the same network as ourselves and these are slow in creating change. People with strong ties are in the same circles, they listen to the same sources and they learn nothing new from one another. Weak ties, on the other hand, speed new information through a network: the people that you have weak ties with are in other networks and have access to different information. One area of research for Granovetter was recruitment where he found people were three times more likely to find a job through a personal contact than they were through an advert or a recruiter and that 80% of the personal contacts that did it for them were weak ties rather than strong ones. If weak ties get you jobs and social media produces weak ties it sounds to me that Twitter is a great place for a recruiter to be. Back to Sandwell: there were extremely weak ties between The Rolling Stones and their audience but no one would doubt the strength of their social influence.

The second piece of Gladwell writing I think is helpful is ‘Tipping Point’. Here, he talks about change in terms of a virus in the sense that infection needs to reach a certain critical mass in order to ‘tip over’ to epidemic status. Some viruses do this; some don’t. Some products produce enduring social change (think the washing machine); some don’t (think the Soda Stream). If ‘Tipping Point’ is right, and I think it is, we’d have to find some sort of critical mass to believe that a ‘trend’ was going to end up as an enduring change. In the sixties, perhaps The Beatles at Shea Stadium was that point. In the big picture, people will look at user numbers for Facebook and Twitter to wonder whether a tipping point has been reached. In the smaller world that Mervyn and I inhabit, no one would claim that we are even close to a tipping point yet but perhaps another one of those ‘weak’ ties is giving us evidence that we are moving rather than standing still: @AlisonChisnell.

On Monday of this week, Alison wrote a post linking to four new blogs in the UK HR community. Four doesn’t sound like a big number but in the context of maybe 10-15 existing blogs, it’s a big growth. Equally importantly, three of the bloggers concerned are practitioners, rather than the self-employed or journalists whose motives in being ‘social’ can be accused of self-promotion or having too much time on our hands. Back to weak ties again – probably the most read UK HR bugger, blogger, @TheHRD posts around the same time on ‘why do you blog?’ and @MJCarty, that community’s most prolific encourager ramps up his existing ‘how to’ guide to novice bloggers. Coincidence or evidence of a move closer to tipping point? You choose, but of all the services pitching to the HR industry recruiters in particular would be foolish to ignore it.

I think that Dominic Sandbrook is right to argue in White Heat that it was only a close group around the Rolling Stones who experienced the radical transformation we imagine. But what that group did was to exercise, through weak ties, the influence that contributed to a tipping point in society that we see in the more liberal Britain we experience today. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that the current UK HR community loosely clustered around #connectinghr might just do the same. Now that’s a beautiful thing, man.