Madness with method: Shakespeare on social media

Jane Hart’s been collecting reasons why organizations should not ban social media.  I wanted to contribute but didn’t think I could match contributors like Jack Vinson, Harold Jarche, or Jane herself.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't.As it happens, that glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon anticipated the kinds of objections Jane had in mind.  What follows are some notions.  They’re not definitive or sure-fire.  In fact, “they are yet but ear-kissing arguments” (King Lear).

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Will, living in an age of social ferment, was pragmatic.  Yes, you’re accustomed to making your connections in an organization the way your boss (or your boss’s father) did.

I have no doubt whatsoever that 1890s-era managers fretted and fulminated over the pointlessness of Mr. Bell’s contraption.

We will draw the curtain and show you the picture.
(Twelfth Night)

Social media make it possible to provide…well, a fuller picture.  Not just in the sense of images more easily created, shared, and modified, but in the combination of images with other representations.

By comparison, it’s really hard to fax a video.

I’m not saying images will guarantee you’ll communicate better.  (Two words: clip art.)  But sometimes less (text) is more (meaning), and social media can help carry some of your intended meaning in ways more traditional vehicles can’t.

An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.
(Richard III)

Here I see advice both for the organization and for the individual.  Speed’s vital: get what you have or what you need, as quickly as you can.  Informal consultation via messaging (Yammer, Twitter, instant messaging); knowledge collection and sharing through vehicles like wikis.

“Plainly told” can also mean “write so you make sense.”  I posted last year about the Washington DC Metro system’s stumbling efforts on Twitter.  The tweets seemed written by a committee, few of whom actually used Twitter.  They’ve gotten somewhat better (see here), though 6 of the 100 most recent tweets were truncated.

(If you’ve been on Twitter for a year and a half and haven’t figured out the 140-character limit, you need to be a bit more reflective.  And maybe when there’s a delay, say “both ways” instead of “in both directions,” trusting that train riders will get the message.)

Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better.
(Twelfth Night)

Speaking of both directions, Will has in mind the idea of fans, friends, and followers.  Rather than worrying about your own status (as an individual or as an organization), focus on participating in the communities around you.  Share stuff.  Offer value.  Give credit.  Link to others.  Spread the wealth.

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
(As You Like It)

One of the tendencies with social networking is that formal status, credentialization, and the like matter less than they used to.  Not that they’re irrelevant: if someone wants to know about nanoscience, then Andrew Maynard is a better starting point than I am.

But you know from ordinary life that very little that’s useful derives from the status or the credential itself.  No matter how extensive someone’s expertise is, I find it’s good to see that he or she recognizes its limits.  As Matt Ridley said of science, I think useful knowledge is like “a hungry furnace that must be fed logs from the forests of ignorance that surrounds us. In the process, the clearing we call knowledge expands, but the more it expands, the longer its perimeter and the more ignorance comes into view.”

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.
(Measure for Measure)

In my experience, it’s private organizations rather than government that trumpet the value of entrepreneurial thinking, agility, openness to new trends — but it wasn’t the government that kept building Chevy Cavaliers, that fought against home video recording, or that shoehorns all training into the lecture-hall, butts-in-seats model.

Yes, there’s a fear that people will waste time on Facebook or Twitter.  That’s because some people will, just as some people use March Madness as an excuse to do nothing all all on the job but yak about brackets and bubbles.

Another side of this: some organizations (public and private alike) are so deeply baptized in the Church of Best Practice that the notion of trying something for themselves is heresy.  I mean, if you’re a pharmaceutical company, might it not be better for you to experiment with social media in a pharma context than to wait till Business Week features a manufacturer’s experience which you’ll then try cramming down the throats of your people?

The end crowns all, and that old common arbitrator, Time, will one day end it.
(Troilus and Cressida)

One real shortcoming of social media — as of software generally — is that you can’t rely on it for the long term.  Google Wave, announced at the end of May 2009, is essentially dead.  Facebook may bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, but so did AOL in its time, and CompuServ before that.

So what Shakespeare’s saying here is, “get thou a grip.”  If you’ve never used a word processor, then learning one is a real challenge.  But once you’ve learned one, you’ve able to conceptually handle another one as your company switches from WordStar to WordPerfect to Word to Google Docs.

No, those aren’t the same.  There are significant differences, but there’s enough at the core to help you cope till you figure the rest out.

As Will might have said if there’d been mayonnaise jars in his time, “Keep cool.  Don’t freeze.”

To unpathed waters, undreamed shores.
(The Winter’s Tale)

This idea flows from the previous ones.  The ease and informality of connections make it possible to go where you hadn’t imagined you’d like to go.  You get exposed to other viewpoints, to experiments in progress, to the cognitive coalface being worked in other parts of the organization.

Those things are hard to do with the monthly newsletter and Human Resource’s weekly email blast.   (And, by the way, if you’re one of the people perpetrating that last item: whatever made you think “blast” was something that’d have a positive connotation for the recipients?)

Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.
(Much Ado About Nothing)

In other words, early adopters, calm down.  Show, don’t tell.  Consider your audience.  Nobody (except maybe you) wants to be using the newest Bright Shiny Object.  Most people want to be getting stuff accomplished, and maybe there’s a way your BSO can help that.

In a similar vein, O grizzled veteran with deep experience (including you, over there, who’ve been on Twitter for three months now):  don’t bite the newbies.  You weren’t born with XHTML coded into your DNA, either.

This above all: to thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Poor Polonius gets a bad rap.  Even if he was a windbag, at least here the bag’s wafting along some good advice.

First: social media was created to serve the individual or organization, not the other way around.  Using these tools will make you…well, yourself, a person who happens to be using them.

Which is why, if you’re prone to be a jerk, people tend to figure that out whether they encounter you in meetings,  in email, or on Twitter.  (The 140-character limit might help minimize that, but I have my doubts.)

Similarly, if you’re open to new things, if you’re someone who reflects on and shares what you’ve been doing, if you’re participating in spheres wider than your hatband, then social media tools help you to be yourself, and become more like yourself.


11 thoughts on “Madness with method: Shakespeare on social media

  1. I would add:
    A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
    (Romeo and Juliet)

    Networking is networking – whether it is cavemen around the campfire, junior businessmens’ leagues, wikis or Twitter. As a species, we’ve been socially networking since we’ve been social.

  2. Ol’ Shake-scene himself was quite the networker. As actor, playwright, C-level officer for the company that built the Globe theater, investor, man-about-Warwick, he took in, reconceived, communicated, and even left some benighted people thinking he was actually Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford.

    Which is to say: you’re right. In the world of work, people have always managed to increase their effectiveness by networking. It’s just easier now–and probably more essential than ever.

  3. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice:

    The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath

  4. Jay, are you implying that communication via social media is twice blest;
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes?

  5. In adding to your March Madness example, people of like minds and interests will flock together. Always have, always will. Not a day goes by that I don’t observer two or more folks chatting it up about a topic that is only reserved for those knowledgeable on that subject. And…away from their workstation. Odd, Social Media is essentially the same conversation yet I’m at my desk prepared to answer the phone, reply to an email, or welcome a walk-up inquiry.

  6. Kevin, human beings at work — especially if they’re not handcuffed to their tools and paid by the piece — will inevitably do things that are not strictly Part of the Job. There’s no way to prevent that, even with a 1-to-1 ratio of overseers to grunts. In fact, to the extent the grunts are on task, those 1-to-1 overseers have less to do, so they are more likely to take their eye off the alleged ball.

    I do think there’s a novelty factor and a learning-curve factor: if Facebook or instant messaging is new in your organization, and unlike the other tools people are used to, you’re bound to see some fooling around, some frittering away, and some learning-by-mistake happening. I don’t think that’s qualitatively different from what happened when people first started engaging in conference calls or using voicemail.

    Your point about being at the same time able to engage in social media and able to work via phone or office applications is right on point. You choose the tools according to your need and your preference. I’ve had fairly long direct-message conversations in Twitter, which isn’t well suited to that sort of exchange, because the topic and the depth didn’t push either me or the other person to move to another form.

    Likewise, I’ve often suggested, during such a conversation, that we switch to something more like instant messaging, such as the Meebo widget in the lower sidebar here on my blog. That’s worked well too.

    It’s a big ol’ toolbox.

  7. Just wanted to add: I wholeheartedly agree with Jay’s comment and your response. It indeed is twice blessed and I have experienced that in the past 2 years.

  8. I value the time it took for you to locate such relevant posts from the bard. Goes to show that “nothing’s new under the sun.” Thanks for a delightful post.

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