Social media, independent thought and organizational culture

Written by James Thomas on Tuesday August 20, 2013

Have social media changed the way we think and work and has this had (positive or negative) consequences for organizational culture?

The sometimes tragic results of trolling and cyber-bullying have been making the headlines over the summer. Perhaps less high profile is the burgeoning market for "fake fans" on social media sites, highlighted by a recent installment of Channel 4's Dispatches for a few hundred quid you can buy a couple thousand views for your Youtube video, likes for your Facebook comment, or re-tweets of your latest outpourings on what you had for breakfast...

Putting to one side questions of trust, transparency and legality this raises, the practice does point to a basic human characteristic seemingly exacerbated by the ubiquity of social media: the apparently irresistible instinct to herd.


Humans are naturally social animals. Social media have therefore been celebrated as a means of bringing people together on an unprecedented scale, to engage in all those social activities that have enabled humanity to exceed the sum of its parts. At its best social media enables the exchange of information, acts as a catalyst for informed debate, and provides a means of making and affirming contacts. At its worst, as Dispatches revealed, it represents the potential to dilute independent thought: mindless "liking", "friending", and "following" for its own sake, on the basis of apparent (often fabricated) popularity or trendiness. As the ever-increasing speed of communications allows consensuses to form more quickly than ever before, one risk is that we get “swept along” with this wave of concord as less and less time is left free for critical reflection.

This is not to denigrate all social media. In a world completely saturated by information, how can time-pressured individuals distinguish between what's important and what's not? One obvious shortcut is to follow what's "trending". We've all done it: in a long discussion thread it makes perfect sense to head straight for the comment with the most votes (positive or negative). After all, who has the time to read them all?

But what if we took this approach to all things in life (and work)?With social media encroaching more than ever on all aspects of our increasingly busy lives, to what extent has the shortcut culture of "like / dislike" and "friend / unfriend" penetrated the collective psyche? Because there are inevitably occasions when individuals in the workplace will need to make decisions, to exercise independent judgement rather than follow the crowd... And these occasions are typically the ones that really matter to Compliance. How would a workforce of habitual "followers" respond in those "moments of truth"? To the extent that we seek to automate our lives, and to follow trends to save on legwork, does this practice erode our basic decision making faculties?

I'd be interested to hear your views. How does social media influence organizational culture? Does it enhance or diminish individuals’ decision making? Is it a source of new ideas, or threat to independent judgement? And does any of this matter?!

Ps - don't forget to "like" or "dislike" this post... Or I will be forced to purchase some fake "likes" myself.


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