Grokking Social Media

In my teens I loved to read science fiction.   I still marvel at how many of the predictions about the future that I read in these books have come to pass in one form or another including my beloved iPad and my nearly constant companion, the Internet.

One word that stuck with me from my mostly forgotten love affair with science fiction is “grok”.  According to author Robert A. Heinlein in “Stranger in a Strange Land”, to grok “means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes part of the observed”.   When it comes to social media, I sometimes wonder if it is not enough to understand it but, to really get social media and appreciate its full potential, one must grok it.

A friend of mine, a marketing and communications expert, is, partially at my urging, trying to figure out social media.  He recently participated in a weekly meet up on twitter of people exploring how to use social media in healthcare (again, at my suggestion) and was underwhelmed, to say the least, and I wonder whether he might think I’m a little crazy given my constant exhortations to use social media on this blog and other venues.

While the term social media may be new to many people, I contend that it has been one of the driving forces that accounts for the rapid adoption of the Internet.  Indeed, like the Gutenberg press, the Internet fundamentally changed the way that we communicate.  Prior to the Internet, mass media was controlled by relatively few corporations and individuals had limited ability to communicate their message to a wide audience.  The Internet shifted control over content to the masses and anyone with a computer can now interact with just about any audience they choose.   Further, and equally important, the Internet opens the possibility of two-way communication on a scale that other media simply cannot match.

As the authors of “The Hyper-Social Organization” (a great read, by the way) point out, Social Media has little to do with technology and everything to do with what they call “Human 1.0”.   We are wired, they argue, to share with anyone who will share with us and the Internet (and the social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter that leverage the Internet) provides the technological means to interact with people outside our immediate geographic vicinity.

Social media is not just another communications channel, as my friend likes to argue, but a platform for creating and sustaining communities of like minded people in a way not previously possible.   Social media is not a concept that can be merely understood but, in my view, one that must be grokked.   To my friend, I respectfully suggest that he cannot simply dip his toe in the social media waters but must immerse himself completely.   Further, he must remember that like other forms of social interaction, some social media experiences will be more memorable and more useful than others.



3 responses to “Grokking Social Media

  1. It wasn’t until I grokked, that I understood. And when I encourage others to grok, they get it too. I hadn’t heard of grokking before today, but it’s a great description of how we understand social media.
    What was the Twitter chat that left your colleague underwhelmed? I am involved in one in the UK (#nhssm NHS social media) and I know from experience that it can be difficult for newcomers to participate and get something out of it.

    • Thanks, Tim, for taking the time to comment. Hope all is well on the other side of the pond .. you have certainly had your challenges in the health sector!

      Interestingly, I find that people more readily grok social media when they use it for personal reasons. It is when organizations try to develop “social media strategies” in order to take business advantage of social media that the trouble seems to start. For the most part, the Internet has always been about user contributed content and the sharing of information. It is this “social” aspect of the Internet that has driven usage beyond 80% of the population in most industrialized countries. People “get” the Internet. Corporate entities (for profit and not-for-profit), on the other hand, seem to have a harder time.


  2. For me hashtag conversations helped me truly understand the conversational potential of Twitter. I learn so much from people I often wouldn’t come into contact with in my daily life. While I would also encourage your friend not to judge from one chat alone, I also contend that social media isn’t for everyone and nor does it have to be.

    However as a communications expert, I’m not sure how one can overlook the amazing potential that social media offers that other traditional communications do not. As you preach Mike, it requires a wholesale change of attitude.

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