Is Social Media Socially Stabilizing or Destabilizing?Mar 28th, 2011 | By steven_spear | Category: Featured Article, High Velocity Organizations
Social media will cause social instability, suggests Daniel Henninger, (”Stability’s End,” Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2011), as larger masses react more quickly, toppling what is in their way. Henninger’s prediction depends on the premise of tsunami-like social (over?) reaction, in control theory a “bang bang solution,” either all off or all on–no moderating in-between.
However, is instability the only possibility?
An alternative is that social media will increase stability by increasing the responsiveness of society to small changes before imbalances and faults have time to accumulate disastrously.
We depend on just such high speed adaptations everywhere.
The human body, for instance, is constantly reacting to micro disruptions to maintain consistency in blood sugar levels, blood pressure, core temperature and the like. Turn off the the body’s social media equivalent–the endocrine system–and you’re left with disease like diabetes.
Advanced technological systems also depend on high speed information processing to be both reliable and responsive. Part of the F-22 fighter jet’s capability to avoid detection is its tremendous agility–prompted by hundreds of millions of micro adjustments per second in thrusts and flaps.
Markets too (when well maintained to ensure accurate, available information and easy, affordable transactions) are highly capable of digesting and adapting to new information in an orderly fashion.
In fact, Henninger’s prediction of instability depends on two assumptions being true.
1: Everyone reacts (more or less) all at once or not at all.
2: What they react against is inherently fragile.
Of course, not everyone reacts all at once. There may be a tweet that Justin Beaver tickets are on sale, but only a small portion of an otherwise larger society will act on that information.
Furthermore, even if ‘everyone’ reacts, it matters that they are reacting against a system that is already fragile and easily displaced not one that is robust (For example, many heating systems are completely on or completely off. However, rooms don’t pitch from grossly overheated to grossly cold because it takes time for the air and contents to heat and cool).
We have familiarity with such vulnerabilities. We’ve seen images of massive buildings–apparently sound–collapsing catastrophically when seismically shocked. Why? Not dynamically responsive to micro shocks over the years–with the rollers, counter weights, and flexible materials of seismically well designed buildings, the ones that collapse have accumulated fractures that make them far more fragile than appearance would have suggested.
Likewise, with the mortgage markets, which only appeared orderly because information about investment risk was largely hidden from public market view. Small imbalances accumulated unprocessed over years, and when they did come to light, the reaction was all at once against a system that was terribly fragile.
So too with social media.
Tunisia and Egypt may be those special cases of apparently stable but deceptively fragile systems being hit quickly and massively. We shouldn’t necessarily assume such instability is the ’steady state’ going forward. That may only be when social media is grafted on to otherwise unstable and dynamically unresponsive systems. Rather, social media grafted onto responsive systems–e.g., democracies with well maintained markets–may actually enhance stability, resilience, and responsiveness.
The key question, then, is not whether social media is stabilizing or destabilizing but whether we are wise enough to create and maintain social, political, financial, and commercial systems that are dynamically resilient to take advantage of social media as an enabler or are we foolish enough to neglect their maintenance and repair leaving ourselves subject to ’sudden’ shock again.
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