Fear of Twitter?

I have spoken with lots of people over the last couple of years about the interplay between new media and organizations, and i have received lots of different responses, ranging from blind optimism (“Social media is the future of business!”) to well-reasoned rejection (“In our highly-regulated industry, social media doesn’t make sense.”)  All of these have made good sense to me, based on the reasoning of the respondent.  But the reasoning behind one fairly common response – mainly from people in management roles – has puzzled me.

“No one cares what i had for lunch!”

Even more puzzling to me is the fact that the wording of the response is almost verbatim from one audience to the next, across many different business verticals and geographic regions.  Most puzzling of all, however, has been the very emotional tone of the response and the body language which is often of a sort much more intense, dismissive and defensive than i would have expected from these otherwise polite, staid people.

I know from general experience and from Psychology 101 that an overly-emotional response to a benign question is usually prompted by some sort of anger, insecurity or fear.  But what about something as innocuous as Twitter could possibly evoke these sorts of responses from otherwise staid folks?  And which emotion is behind them?

After a little reflection and reading of sociology, i think the source may be fear.  From where? Let’s step back for a moment to think about what might produce fear in a manager.

Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept of  fields – which are “social arenas.. defined by the stakes which are at stake.” [1]   Without going into too much detail here, all of us live and work in multiple fields.  The manager generally works in the field of management, and may also live in the field of the middle-class.  It is from these fields that she obtains her capital or, in other words, her social, economic, relational result of her activities within that field.  It is the pursuit of these various forms of capital that motivates her to participate in these fields, and it is from these fields that she gains capital.  In addition, her personal disposition, her beliefs (Bourdieu lumps these into the concept of habitus) are developed as she interacts with these fields.  As a result, she becomes deeply attached to, and at least partially dependent on, these fields for her livelihood, her security, and even for her knowledge of the world.

..so when something seems to attack or break either her beliefs or the foundations of one or more of her fields, she is put into at least a minor crisis which in most of us, induces some sort of fear.  It is this sort of deep fear that i seemed to feel in managers and leaders.  But why would it be in reaction to Twitter??

The one field most in common between the people with whom i have spoken is that of management.  Entry into this field traditionally affords a person with a great deal of social (authority, respect) and economic (higher pay, control of resources) capital – which is one of the major motivating factors behind student enrollment in Business School MBA programs – which increase both the speed and likelihood of entry into the field.  As i have written before, though, the field of management, as it is currently practiced, has been showing some cracks.  It is still practiced (and often taught) based on 100-year-old core principles of centralized decision making, scientific management, disconnected workers and difficulty of communication in a slow business environment.  As a result, the field is straining under the weight of cultural norms of distributed decision making, returns to rule-of-thumb and highly-connected workers who are often better at communicating with each other than are their managers in an increasingly fast business environment.

..so why is it Twitter that might evoke fear in managers?  In actuality, it probably doesn’t.  But it may, in  the eyes of a person who feels, on a deep (perhaps even subconscious level) that their field and their beliefs are being attacked by the free flow of information, by ad hoc group action, and by rapid, imperfect communications, that Twitter (and more importantly its widespread use in these ways that break very old paradigms) represents the most extreme and obvious (and easiest to attack) tip of the technological and cultural iceberg that is forcing a rethinking of core, 100-year-old assumptions of the management field, which in turn seems to threaten the manager’s beliefs and their ability to accumulate capital.

Assuming, for the moment, then that fear is behind the reactions i have seen, i think it is a false fear. “Management” as a field (in the Bordieu sense) will always be necessary.  It won’t dissapear so long as there is some need for coordination, mentorship, functional differentiation, etc. within groups of people who are trying to accomplish a collective goal.  But its structure, its underlying beliefs and assumptions, and the practices which produce and reproduce the field will change substantially.  The widespread use of Twitter and other technologies only threatens the portion of the field of management which doesn’t question its 100-year-old assumptions, not the entire field.  So in a post-Enron/WorldComm, de-centralized, highly-connected world that is looking for short, informal, consistent, genuine connections with leaders who are trustworthy, real people, perhaps a manager’s biggest fear should be his own out-of-hand dismissal of the organizational power of a 140-character message sent from his cell phone about a great pastrami sandwich.

I will be looking into this further in the coming months (the question is related, on a deep level, to the research we are currently conducting with organizations for our upcoming book), but i’d like to know what you think.  Am i onto something here, or am i on something?

[1] Jenkins, R. (1992). Key Sociologists: Pierre Bourdieu.

Related Posts:

This entry was posted in Management, Organization, People and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Fear of Twitter?

  1. Drew says:

    I’ve experienced management embrace technologies like Twitter more than revile it. I guess it depends on the industry, too. A company with a good working environment may want this information to be shared, where a company with a bad working environment might not want their dirty laundry aired to the world.

    When I was working for Deloitte, there was a great fear of “blogging about work”, mostly because this ‘blogging’ (forum posts) was actually bitching about the state of the organization. For example, the creators of GreenDotLife.com, a place for employees to anonymously talk about the firm, were let go of by management (or quit shortly after being discovered). The firm management was deeply afraid of anything that might make the company look bad, because frankly, the work environment wasn’t very good and they were afraid of the light 😉

    My experience at Disney Animation, however, was that they embraced social technologies. Our manager encouraged us to use Yammer, but did not discourage us from using Twitter! Even in a place where they had to keep a tight control over the content, they embrace social media!

    My take on it is that a manager who is afraid of something like Twitter is also afraid of having an earnest conversation with their employees about the state of the organization and their work.

  2. Chad says:

    I will respond to this well-written account with some poorly-written frankness.

    We fear what we do not understand. “No one cares what I had for lunch!” can be translated into a lot of things:

    1.” I think Twitter users don’t talk about anything more substantial than lunch. I am as ill-informed about the value of Twitter as people who ban/burn books that are “bad” even when they haven’t read them.”

    2. “I feel like I need to dismiss this new social media thing because if I acknowledge its worth, and I am not really into it all that much, then I am a dinosaur. Denial is a stage of loss. By denying its worth I get to pretend that my current approach to my position is still relevant.”

    3. “I don’t immediately know how to make money with that.”

    4. “Who cares about Twitter? In 2 years we won’t remember Twitter because some other new thing will have taken its place. But I will still be here.”

    5. “Why would I want to listen to my employees’ opinions about things? I have an MBA. I know better than them.”

  3. christian says:

    Drew, thanks for the comment. Very interesting comparison of the two cultures, especially given the normally-secretive culture at Disney (at least Imagineering was very secretive when i worked there).

    Chad, thanks for your comment too. Lots of interesting thoughts there.

    For both of your sets of examples, do you think the sort of functional resistance (for example “i don’t want to know what employees think”) would be sufficient to result in the types of emotionally-charged reactions i received?

  4. jsteele says:

    I think you can extend this beyond Twitter, which is simply one representation of social media, and more specifically public-facing social media. There is no question that fear is a driving motivator in this case. As Chad pointed out, the basis for that fear can come from several different sources. In order to more specifically identify the nature of the existing environment. Considering the “traditional” business models you (Christian) referred to, some of the fundamental principles underlying them include structure, hierarchy, standards, processes, stability and other forms directed towards algorithms, mastery, and specialization.

    The combination of electronic speed and digital representation that exist in new media have promoted change, complexity, networks, multi-disciplinarity, innovation, exploration, and collaboration. The emergence of social media applications such as Twitter are derivatives of the transformation taking place as a result of the digitization of media. For those who do not invest the resources (time and money) to understand, fear is a natural response – fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of failure, and fear of rejection.

    I find it interesting to read Drew’s observations of his experiences with two different organizations. I do not know the particulars, but I would imagine that the designerly nature of the environment at Disney Animation would predispose them to being more open to Twitter and other forms of social media. I talked about this in my most recent post on my own blog.

    I definitely think you are onto something here, Christian. I would imagine that the responses you point out are symptoms of an underlying root problem, notably fear. In order to effectively treat an illness, it helps to properly diagnose the problem. I think you are heading in the right direction. Keep digging!

  5. Umair says:

    Firstly, I don’t think being ‘on something’ stops anyone from getting ‘onto something’. :)
    Manager or non-manager, I think fear of twitter is due to lack of understanding of what Twitter (or other social media tools) is/are, and what can it do for them personally and professionally.
    I think a more data driven survey of managers across various industries would be very interesting on this topic. I think the results will vary markedly across industries. It is very hard to generalize and say ‘managers’.

  6. Jay Steele says:

    @Umair – re: “I think a more data driven survey of managers across various industries would be very interesting on this topic. I think the results will vary markedly across industries. It is very hard to generalize and say ‘managers’.”

    Stay tuned. That is exactly what we are researching right now. Our forthcoming book will be reporting on our findings. Interestingly enough, preliminary research seems to indicate that the type of industry/field is not as much of a driver as are some other characteristics – of both individuals within the organization and whether or not the organization itself is a “learning organization” as defined by Peter Senge and Chris Argyris.

Comments are closed.