If, like me, your head is spinning with the constant conversation, your ears vibrating with the latest buzz and your hands weary from punching keys on the latest digital toys, then perhaps you would do me the kindness of joining me – perhaps under the shade of a virtual tree – for a bit of thinking about where we’ve got to.
I’ve been pondering quite a bit these last few weeks, particularly as Twitter has drawn towards its present popularity peak and other, equally useful microsharing tools (watch out for 12 secondstv) have become available. Much of it is white noise, some of it resembles a rather unpleasantly behaved high-school playground and in the midst of it all, many practitioners persist in trumpeting like elephants in musth that all the tools make for ‘New PR’.
A while ago , I ventured the opinion that new tools don’t make for new public relations and although tools like Twitter helped people find a voice, their main benefit lay in providing practitioners with a listening and monitoring suite, rather than simply an opportunity to start talking ‘at’ people. As predicted, microblogging has become de rigueur, but I do wonder if microblogging has also ushered in a tendency towards microthinking. I am as guilty as the next geek when it comes to an off-hand 20-word observation, or a too-soon re-tweet, but involvement in microblog conversations (outside the fairly self-absorbed social media loop) reveals – for me at least – an alarming degradation of language, expression and thinking to the point where the recycling of opinion, ill-informed or otherwise, does nothing to reassure me as to the future of the planet.
Rumour has it that the online tools have been used to great effect in readiness for next week’s G20 summit in London. Activists have embraced their use in order to, at the very least, impose a threat and, at worst, fulfill a promise of far worse ‘action’ to come. It would seem that ‘burn a banker’ has been chosen as the mot juste for the day, with the less-than-veiled suggestion that the moneylenders may be whipped around London’s Temple – to the point where establishments have advised their staff to ‘dress down’ and avoid meetings.
On the other hand, many use the toolkit for very positive ends, building long term, fruitful relationships with their communities. There are of course, oft-reported instances of people getting it wrong – but if it is an honest mistake caused by recent interaction with the toolset, what the heck? I think it was Samuel Beckett who said something along the lines of ‘fail, but fail better next time’.
So as I mentally chewed over the myriad of opinions, facts and faux-facts swilling round my addled brain, it occured to me that maybe all these distracting voices were more likely to lead me towards serendipitous productivity than opinion fatigue. If, like me, you monitor much information from a multiplicity of sources, you may have some sympathy when I explain I reached a point where there were just so many voices on so many platforms with so many opinions about everything it became quite oppressive – almost as though there was nothing left to discover or say. A strong cup of tea and a bit of a sit down later, I reminded myself of the origins of serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole back in 1754, and suggested by the old story (first published in Venice in 1557) of the Three Princes of Serendip. The princes were always making discoveries they were not looking for either by accident or because of the sagacity of their thinking.
In more recent times, other disciplines and industries have benefited greatly from serendipity – and often, on the first ‘discovery’ thought they had got it all wrong. Medicine springs to mind as an example; Alexander Fleming (schoolgirl memory here) was supposed to have sneezed on his petri dish and rather than cleaning up straight away, just let the bugs grow, eventually leading him to penicillin. He is reported to have said: “Nature makes penicillin, I just found it. One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” Once, the medieval medics would have encouraged the liberal use of leeches in every circumstance – so too, in these formative years of digital connectivity, social media remedies are, in many instances, being prescribed just because they are there, rather than because they are efficacious. And that is detrimental to the relationship – which is, after all, our ultimate responsibility.
Which brings me to the question I’d put to you as we reflect under our virtual tree (and before the mayhem of disintegrating, unmediated relationships begins in earnest in London and elsewhere). Do you, like me, believe that the tools are additional items we can use on our serendipitous and evolutionary journey towards more professional, ethical public relations practice that contributes to the public good, or are you happily at one with the Babel-like cacophony that declares social media is, in itself, the ‘new PRomised land’?