Recent research says that social media and messaging apps are continuing to expand and proliferate. But not so with senior executives, who are
starting to avoid these networks altogether. Chris Molloy reports.
Today's social media reaches out into every corner of the globe, and increasingly into every corner of our professional and social lives.
Recent research from GlobalWebIndex also shows that social media and messaging apps continue to expand and proliferate. Whilst many argue that
this makes everyone constantly connected to an online community, the hype surrounding this social media trend may not be so popular with senior
professionals any more, and some are starting to avoid these networks altogether.
Executives have always relied on personal, privileged networks where access is granted with an understanding that it will not be misused. This
group are now at the forefront of a reaction to the tsunami of random data crashing out of social media channels. Executives are moving back to
an 'ex-directory’ world where smaller, restricted networks are of the highest value; where more closed conversations are possible and where
useful content can be consumed.
Through our own daily interaction with executives and drawing on relevant articles, I have noticed that an increasing number of executives and
C-level staff are leaving social media channels, driven away by an overwhelming flood of information, disillusionment with its value and the
amount of time needed to fully utilise and keep up with competing platforms.
We all live in a digital era where we are now managing our homes, work and personal lives through our smartphones. Although we all rise with
the tide of digitisation, not everyone has bought into an 'always on, always available' global community. As with every population, there are
some who embrace, enjoy and downright object to these digital transformations. This is a natural variation within a population. It's completely
The trend for executives to move away from social media in their professional lives is a natural and complex human reaction. It is a
combination of technology, motivation, time, risk and relevance.
The impact of hype
First there is the excitement and uptake of a new technology. This is where the hype kicks in and ‘everyone is talking about’ the new tech on the block. Either through natural interest or peer pressure people jump on board, see an opportunity to benefit – or be in the in crowd -- and tell others. However, in many cases the reality does not meet the hype. Inflated expectation is nearly always followed by disillusionment and then rejection. If the technology survives this dip and finds its niche then it can genuinely drive a new way of working and become a tool of productivity. Very few new technologies cross this chasm and almost no first movers become the final tool of choice.
In addition to this standard cycle of ‘hype-and-discard’ is a massive global trend which is relevant for the social media world and will affect
us all: Web 4.0.
The internet has undergone a number of major changes, many of which we have forgotten as we have raced along with the crash and bang of new
developments. As we have moved from Web 1.0 to where we are today, we have seen the system change from one where information was accessible
somewhere, so long as you knew where to look, to a system where everything became searchable (Web 2.0), and finally to Web 3.0, where
everything is community-based, has open access and is free-to-share. This has affected how we interact with data and each other. As each wave
has broken we have hungered for even smarter approaches; and Web 3.0 with its mass-interaction is now set to evolve again.
Web 4.0 is set to break down the global communities set up in Web 3.0 and will instead develop more one-on-one interactions, which will be
relevant, personalised and less public. 4.0 will be more about how individuals can build smaller semi-open communities and interact in private.
These private interactions may be with your friend, your clinician, even with multinational organisations serving millions of customers.
What does this mean for social media? Although there is no playbook for Web 4.0, it is clear that living through the Web in public will rebound
into smaller, more defined, trusted, groups. This will change the quality of the interaction but it will also determine who can listen and look
Another trend is the explosion in competing systems. This makes it harder for executives to invest time and effort on one system to get the
full benefit. Whereas in 2008 there were only a few systems, such as LinkedIn for professional networking now there are a host, all competing
for career information and user attention. Each must offer better features to keep users’ interest which then grows their database and their
commercial opportunity. However disruptive entrants to the market arrive daily and rely on a human fascination with the new or frustration with
the old. As our attention span shortens so this trend increases. Just look at how quickly young people swap from one platform to another when
they get bored or when a newer, cooler platform becomes available.
Recently Professor Daniel Miller undertook research with 16 – 18 year olds at University College London, which predicted the death of Facebook.
He said “The desire for the new, also drives each new generation to find their own media and this is playing out now in social media. "It is
nothing new that young people care about style and status in relation to their peers, and Facebook is simply not cool anymore." This may be one
of the reasons that over 50% of active users of social media are aged between 16-34 (GlobalWebIndex).
Many PR firms and marketing and communication groups now claim specialisation in
making their executives 'thought leaders' or customer conscious through ghosted Twitter or LinkedIn activity. As Ben Cooper, a senior executive
at the BBC said at a recent BBC Academy digital media conference, “You need continuity, a tone of voice, a sense of humour. Not 50 different
people in the company tweeting. We're trying to be strategic; we're trying to avoid random acts of digital.” Whilst this may work well in a
mass market mode, most executives can see through it and realise its impersonality. Therefore, by the time these techniques are perfected, the
professional audience has already stopped listening or turned off completely.
Executives have limited time. They rarely read articles, but they will scan titles and email headers. They are, by definition, great
decision-makers and therefore very good at filtering data. They do however appreciate low-volume hi-def information content and eventually they
move away from white noise. When one needs IT systems to control and manage all your incoming social media you know two things: there is and
will be no one system to manage it all and it’s only going to get more complicated.
Executives are experts at managing risk. Therefore they often decide that they would rather say nothing than open up a Pandora’s Box of
potential problems, both socially and professionally. How many times can we cite the off-hand quote, late night Tweets or Facebook tags that
hves embarrassed executives or lost them their key to executive washroom? Why take the risk in the first place?
Paradoxically the success of many social platforms has also caused their downfall. The wider the social circle grows, the less relevant it
becomes and the more diluted its value is to more senior professionals. David Whelan writes about leaving
LinkedIn, stating: "The increasing connection requests from people I had never heard of were indicative that [it] has shifted from its initial
focus of making professional connections relevant;" and recently a company chairman said to me, "I used to be able to read the content I
received through social channels, now I just get bombarded with it.”
Let's take a look again at LinkedIn. When it started it provided a useful central way to store contacts and a professional version of ‘Friends
Reunited.’ It added on professional groups who shared useful things and acted as a way to access people in a semi-protected way. It used to be
a source of a few great contacts and snippets of information that were truly useful. However it is now a barrage of semi-connected white noise
and a haven for contingent recruiters. It's a high content advance on a telephone directory, but look at what happened to that system. The
phone book is a vital source of useful, crowd-sourced data, but the real VIPs are all ex-directory.
Professionally we know that transformational people are identified by how they influence others, not what they say about themselves. They do not need to market themselves. Even after an unprecedented reduction in head count across the Life Sciences, the most transformational people are still actively employed doing great things for great
companies, not managing their digital footprint.
Executives are leaders. Therefore the leadership of the executive cohort leaving social media channels in favour of discrete peer-to-peer
relationships is natural. We are not predicting the death of social media portals any time soon. They will remain as self-advertising
platforms, sources of data for business development, low-level recruitment and as a useful professional Rolodex. However it is only one element
of a much more complex set of Web 4.0-ready data networks which define and support executives.
Social media technology has created a useful data resource, but the trough of disillusionment has begun from the top down. What is to come is a
return to more personalized, privileged networks, enabled by the Internet, but not on public view and not limited to one platform. It will be a
beautifully complex world that, like the world of executives, is people-driven.
Chris Molloy is CEO of the RSA Group.