Business Should Focus on Sociality, Not Social “Media”
December 11, 2012 Editor 0
The majority of people worldwide wouldn’t care if two thirds of brands disappeared tomorrow. Just 20 percent of brands are seen to have a notable positive impact on people’s lives.
Those are two of the findings from Meaningful Brands, a little study we do at my Lab. And while I don’t suggest you take them as hyperquantitative gospel, I do suggest: they point squarely to a broken relationship between companies and individuals — part of a larger break between people and institutions I’ve called a Great Splintering, a global breakdown of the industrial age social contract of more, bigger, faster, cheaper now — at any cost, including the planet, your town, the McJob once formerly known as your career, and the express train to nowheresville currently known as the future of everyone under the age of 35 and/or worth less than a few billion dollars.
Now, let’s talk about meggings, and their even less fortunately named cousin, mantyhose. They’re — yes — touted this year by the fashion cognoscenti as the latest sartorial must-have. I can hear you giggling already: who are they kidding? You know and I know that today’s megging wearers are tomorrow’s fashion victims; that mantyhose are a weapon of mass grodiness that needs a non-proliferation treaty ASAP; and further, that slapping on either is a crime against humanity that deserves to be prosecuted at the Hague with no parole for good behavior. In short, sometimes, fashion is the opposite of style, and falling victim to its whims is a cringe-worthy error of vanity. “DUDE!”, I’m pretty sure your so-called friends will say in 2014: “Remember when you wore meggings, bro?! LOLLLLLLLL!!!!!1111”
Which is akin to the state of play of “social media”. In March 2010, I wrote a post called “The Social Media Bubble”; controversial at the time, it’s perhaps less so now: once-heavily touted social media stocks, the prizes of both Silicon Valley and Wall St — Groupon and Zynga, for example — would, had you invested in them at IPO, done a neat job of blowing a hole the size of the vanished polar icecaps in your 401K. I’d say: yesterday’s social media superstars turned out to be a little like today’s meggings: fashionable mistakes many would rather pretend didn’t really happen.
What, then — if there is one — is the truer promise of sociality? In a word: life.
Let’s step out of our neatly-assigned roles for a second — you, reader, I author; you, consumer, I producer. Let’s speak to one another, simply, as passengers heading to same destination. Beyond the allure of today’s latest fads and fashions, beyond the advice I and others can give you about money, sex, and power and how to get it all, fast, here are four essential, timeless truths. Life is shorter than any of us truly expect. Human potential is vaster than any of us truly know. Joy and sorrow cut sharper — and flee faster — than any of us can truly understand. And so: the great truths of a life well lived have always been love, beauty, and accomplishment.
Forget the ugly words “social media” for a moment — because the Zyngroupons of the world make a mockery of “social.” Sociality is something bigger, deeper, more vital: that which connects all life; the relationship of life to life itself. It’s here, in the simplicity of that relationship, that you can glimpse what I call existential responsibility: a life, connected more strongly, wholly, fully, unbreakably, with living fully; and living fully, joined ever closer, truer, tighter to the brief span of a life.
Sociality, by connecting life to life, is the hand that writes the timeless truths of living that each and every one of us who has lived and will live shares. And it’s resurgence is what promises to breathe life back, by breathing life back, into you, I and our way of life, work, and play; the contracts we forge with one another, through the institutions we consent to govern us. The great promise of the social is to reconnect life with living, and so reconnect institutions with individuals. And the great danger of the social is to disconnect life from living — and let institutions run roughshod over individuals.
Hence, let me advance a tiny thesis: I believe that every kind of institution — business or otherwise — today carries not just a social responsibility, but an existential responsibility. A responsibility not just to society — but to life itself; and further, to the art of living. An obligation to elevate what’s worthy, good, and true in every life; a duty not just to “serve” people as “consumers”, but to better people as humans; a calling not merely to “deliver” — but to matter.
Here’s what I don’t mean. That your next corporate strategy, summed in PowerPoint slide 447, consists of a grand plan to mass-produce the meaning of life in a twenty-four-pack of cans that can be found in aisle 47,935 of your nearest decrepit tubelit big-box store. That, in a twist worthy of Orwell meets Huxley, overweening beancounters charge you an extra 30 percent for stuff that actually doesn’t slowly give you the emotional equivalent of a slow death by toxic shock (or the actual physical version thereof). That business, or any other institution, dictates life to you (Oh, wait, that’s what they already do — just not in ways that benefit anyone who isn’t already the Gangnam-Style scion of a mummified vampire hedge fund quadrillionaire).
Here’s what I do mean. That institutions focus on outcomes, not just outputs. That the job of managers isn’t just to “deliver product” — but to impact lives. That the job of investors isn’t merely to program robots to trade worthless chits of paper faster than the speed of light — but to allocate capital to institutions that create real human value. That if you “buy” stuff, and it fails to make you meaningfully better off — someone somewhere hasn’t done their job. That the real work of an institution is to help you arc past what you thought were the immovable limits of your human potential — and then do it over and over and over again.
Feel the tension in the last two paragraphs? That’s the tension you’re going to have to take on if you want to build a worthwhile future by building an institution fit for a worthwhile future. You’re going to have resolve the seeming paradox of helping people explode their human potential — without resorting to tired formula, heavy-handed diktat, or ham-fisted spectacle (“Today only!! Dr Feelawesome, speaking live at the Megamall of the McFuture!!”). You’re going to have to learn to get serious about what matters to people — in the terms that count to them. And then not just package it neatly, sell it cheap, and finance it cheaper — you’re going to have co-create it with them, instill it in them, and imbibe it from them. You’re going to have to redefine “service” from a tired, lackluster charade, to an art (See: Mercadona); transform “distribution” into access (see: WhipCar); revolutionize design from a masochistically banal exercise in Fifty Shades of Greige to stuff that makes the word “beauty” mean something again (See: Medium); and that’s just to barely begin with.
None of us are here not to make a difference. Let me put it like this. The industrial age’s great binge has left us with a kind of existential hangover. We don’t know why we’re really here anymore. Is it “money”? Is it “growth”? Is it “productivity”? Here’s a not-so-secret: we are here, each and every one of us, to live. Wholly, fully, uncompromisingly. And we always have been. The mercilessly vicious cycle of working harder, get poorer, feel emptier, buy more…work harder — it’s not just a recipe for economic stagnation: it’s a formula for a kind of existential suicide, for billions of bleak seconds every second of human life squandered. So you’re going to have to refuse, reject, and revolutionize it. You’re going to have to pioneer building not just “an economy” or “a business” — emptier and emptier concepts — but lives worthy of the privilege of living. Remember my four timeless truths? The great challenge — that, for a moment, dazzled by the fools’ gold of plenty, we forgot — is this: inspiring, elevating, and enabling people to craft lives that honor the truth of life.
You know how I likened yesterday’s social media superstars to today’s meggings? Now think bigger. If institutions in general can’t get serious about life, they’re like meggings: ultra-fashionable, pretty grody, and laughably obsolete by next year.
Nothing you do matters until everything you do counts. That’s a tiny statement of personal existential responsibility: the obligation of those who choose to embrace their better selves fully, wholly, uncompromisingly. And the existential responsibility of business, should you accept my tiny thesis, is nothing less than helping each and every one of us live it.
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